Whether it’s for the health benefits, ethical reasons, or environmental concerns; it seems like everyday more and more people are moving towards a whole-food, plant-based diet. But not everyone is convinced. Many people are uncertain whether this way of eating can provide all of the nutrients needed for lasting health.
I am a strong proponent of getting the majority of our nutrition through whole, unrefined, plant foods. I also think that many of the supplements out there on the shelves are not really necessary. I do believe however there can be a few exceptions to the rule.
I will share with you today the few supplements that I believe may be necessary on a plant-based diet.
1. Vitamin B-12
B-12 is a vitamin that is essential for many different bodily functions, including: cell production, maintenance of the nervous system, red blood cell synthesis, and DNA formation. A deficiency can lead to anaemia, neurological degeneration and gastrointestinal problems.
For the most part, B-12 is only found in animal products; although there are a few arguments against this claim. Some state that B-12 used to be abundant in our soils, but over farming and modern agriculture has stripped the ground of its nutrients. Others say we would still absorb B-12 from microbes in the dirt if we weren’t so fussy about washing our produce.
Regardless of these claims, it is important to note that a B-12 deficiency is not exclusive to a plant-based diet. Results from a study in 2000 showed that meat eaters still had a 1/6 chance of being B-12 deficient, and those with the highest B-12 levels in the study were actually those eating fortified foods or taking B-12 supplements .
Yes, supplementation may go against the whole-istic view of nutrition – that you cannot consider an individual nutrient without considering the entirety of the whole food. But there is also a lot of evidence to suggest that consuming animal products can have adverse effects on your health. We can’t take in the B-12 from animal products without also taking in the cholesterol, the saturated fats, and animal protein; so we’re stuck in a bit of a catch-22.
One option is to consume a diet consisting predominately of whole plant foods, but very small amounts of animal products. A potential issue I can see with this approach is the definition of ‘small’. Moderation is very subjective, and for some people can lead to a very slippery downward slope. The next thing you know, you’re back to the standard american diet.
On the other hand, you can use a supplement, and abstain from animal products completely. As far as I’m aware, a diet consisting of entirely plant foods that is supplemented by B-12 has no negative effects, and can even be beneficial to your health.
I personally use a B-12 supplement in the form of a sub-lingual spray, as this method is thought to allow the most effective absorption. The supplements also come in a few different forms, the most popular being cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. Most supplements are of the cyano form – a synthetic version of B-12, which produces very small amounts of cyanide as a by-product. I lean towards the use of methylcobalamin; the natural version of B-12 that is easier for your body to store and utilise. I usually take in about 1000 mcg a day.
2. Vitamin D-3
Vitamin D is another important micro-nutrient involved in bone formation, and calcium and phosphorus absorption. A deficiency can lead to a range of skeletal problems, including rickets in children.
The majority of Vitamin D (for both herbivores and omnivores) is produced from the interaction of the suns rays with sterols in our skin. Varying amounts are found in other animal and plant foods, but the predominant source remains our own bodies.
Twenty minutes of exposure to sunlight a day should be enough for most people to reach their daily requirements. However, during the Winter months in the higher latitudes, the amount of sunlight is often not sufficient, hence we dig into our stores from the rest of the year.
I live in Britain; notorious for cold, wet, cloudy Winters. The sun is often not high enough in the sky even at midday to produce adequate levels, so I currently take a supplement to provide a safety net and ensure my stores don’t drop too low.
Again, not all Vitamin D supplements are created equally. I go for the more readily available sublingual D-3 spray; rather than the less potent, fungus derived D-2. I take in around 750 mcg every other day during the winter, but feel no need to take anything during the rest of the year. Over supplementation can also have adverse effects, so if you’re considering supplementing, proceed with a little caution and do your research.
Iodine is a trace mineral required to regulate the thyroid gland and synthesise thyroid hormones. A deficiency can cause goitres on the thyroid gland, hypothyroidism, and even mental retardation . However, excess iodine can also cause thyroid problems too.
Plant sources of iodine include sea vegetables, but actual amounts of iodine can vary significantly. Interestingly, the biggest dietary source of iodine is from dairy products, which have absorbed the mineral from cleaning solutions used on farms. Fish are also a source, but ensure you weigh up the benefits with the costs and make the decision that resonates the best with you.
Because of the delicate balance of iodine needed in the body, I recommend getting an iodine loading test done to measure your normal levels before considering any supplementation. I have yet to do this, so I do not currently supplement. Some recommend using drops of 100 micrograms a day to ensure you fall into the safe category between 100-300 mcg , but I would still recommend getting tested first.
Do you believe supplements are necessary on a plant-based diet? Would you add any others to this list?
- Tucker, Katherine L., et al. “Plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations relate to intake source in the Framingham Offspring study.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 71.2 (2000): 514-522.
- Felig, Philip, and Lawrence A. Frohman. “Endemic Goiter.” Endocrinology & metabolism. McGraw-Hill Professional (2001).