When I went vegan 10 years ago, I was soaking almonds to make almond milk and blending chickpeas for hummus. Nowadays, with the exponential growth of vegan diets, you can find virtually anything in a plant-based version. Restaurant chains are now offering vegan-friendly menus and grocery stores are dedicating entire sections to plant-based products. The increased demand for vegan foods comes with good reasons: Plant-based diets benefit human health, animal welfare, and they are more environmentally sustainable.
Plant-based diets are well-studied and have been proven to provide many benefits, one being disease prevention. A well-balanced vegan diet – one that excludes all animal products – is associated with a lower risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. However, if not done properly, a plant-based diet may result in nutrient gaps, which can lead to side effects and health complications. Symptoms of nutrient deficiencies may include energy depletion, cardiovascular complications, loss in bone density, and a weakened immune system. This is where supplements come into play and can help you keep normal nutrient levels. Here are four supplements every vegan should be taking to prevent nutrition gaps:
Vitamin B12 is essential for nerve cell function, energy production, DNA synthesis, and red blood cell production. B12 regulates amounts of homocysteine (an amino acid) in the blood, which is important because elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. A B12 deficiency can lead to fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and neurological issues such as numbing of fingers and toes.
Animal products, including meat, eggs, fish, and shellfish, are the main food sources of vitamin B12. Although some plant-based foods are fortified with B12, such as cereals and nutritional yeast, they are not reliable or adequate sources. Those following a strictly plant-based diet, with no animal products, must supplement with vitamin B12.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg for adults and 2.6 mcg for pregnant women. B12 supplementation is inexpensive and widely available. However, it’s important to know that the body absorbs only a small percentage of B12 from supplements, so consuming 500 mcg B12 doses is recommended. Older adults should supplement with 1,000 mcg.
2Aged Garlic Extract
Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) is a well-studied supplement that supports cardiovascular health. It has been shown to improve heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and clogged arteries. Considering that heart disease is the number-one killer in the United States, we must be proactive about our heart health. This is especially important for those with a family history of heart disease or those consuming a highly processed diet.
In the same way that wine is more than ‘just grapes,’ aged garlic extract is more than just garlic. The proprietary aging process to make aged garlic extract increases garlic’s antioxidant power, removes its strong odor, and concentrates its benefits. In short, the aged garlic extract is far more potent than raw garlic. In fact, you would have to eat up to 28 garlic cloves to get these same benefits. This is not only difficult because of the garlic breath (definitely not good when going on a date) but it’s also hard on your digestive system.
My favorite AGE supplement to recommend is the Kyolic Vegan Aged Garlic Extract supplement because it’s made from only vegan ingredients. This may be new news to many, but most supplement companies use animal ingredients such as gelatin (from animal skin and bones) and beeswax to encapsulate the nutrients, so it’s important for those following a plant-based diet to read the supplement labels carefully. Another reason I recommend Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract is because it is made by Wakunaga of America, a very reputable company and a leader in the natural supplement industry that has been around for 50 years. Plus, Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract is backed by more than 900 published scientific papers and the capsules are easy to swallow and odorless, leaving no aftertaste.
Calcium is an essential mineral responsible for the health of bones and teeth. This is due to the fact that calcium is a major component of bones, giving them strength and structure. Calcium also plays an important role in muscle contraction, blood clotting, and regulating normal heart rhythms and nerve function.
Plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fortified plant milk. Although some of these foods — such as kale — are excellent sources of calcium, you would have to eat 10 cups of kale to meet daily calcium requirements. If not well-planned, a plant-based diet may lack sufficient calcium or vitamin D, which is needed for the proper absorption of calcium.
The RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg for adults and 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 71. Because calcium is best absorbed when taken in small amounts, a 600mg calcium supplement is recommended twice per day. Most calcium supplements are made from animal sources, so vegans should look for plant calcium sourced from algae, such as red marine algae.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a crucial role in the body. Vitamin D supports the immune system by enhancing the function of immune cells, which help the body fight disease and infection. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both of which are critical for bone health. Finally, vitamin D also plays a role in reducing inflammation and the risk of infection.
Plant-based foods such as fruit juices, plant milk, and cereals can be fortified with vitamin D, but these are not reliable sources of the vitamin. For example, you would need to drink 6.5 cups of vitamin D-fortified plan milk each day to meet the minimum daily requirement. Non-food sources of vitamin D include sunlight, which the body is able to convert into the active form of the vitamin. However, prolonged sun exposure is associated with an increased risk for skin cancer and therefore should be limited.
Vitamin D supplementation is a much more effective way to meet daily requirements when compared to foods and sunlight. In fact, it is estimated that about 40% of the U.S. population has a vitamin D deficiency. Most vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and easy to swallow because of their small size. Although the current guideline for vitamin D is 600 IU per day, a growing body of research suggests that 2,000 IU per day is beneficial for supporting the immune system.
The Perfect Combination
Consuming a nutrient-dense vegan diet that includes a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is an excellent way to improve your health and well-being. Additionally, supplementation can provide a safety net for those starting on their vegan journey and can help maintain adequate nutrient levels throughout the lifespan. A wholesome diet combined with the right supplements is the perfect recipe for good health.
If you are interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet, I strongly recommend consulting with a registered dietitian for guidance, to ensure your diet is balanced and meets all the nutritional requirements.
Carolina Schneider, MS, RD
Carolina Schneider, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and founder of Hungry for Plants. She specializes in plant-based nutrition and has followed a whole-food, plant-based diet for her entire adult life. Her experience, combined with her passion and knowledge, equip her to help others better understand the nutritional benefits of food and how to incorporate them into their everyday lives. Originally from Brazil, Schneider is fluent in Portuguese, English and Spanish. She received degrees in journalism and public relations, which have given her the foundation to become an educator and influencer on the plant-based lifestyle. She frequently posts nutrition tips and recipes at “Carolina the Green RD” on Instagram. Schneider obtained her Master of Science degree in Nutrition & Dietetics, and is passionate about nutrition science and helping individuals improve health and wellbeing through food.