We give you some information about the different supplements available for vegans in order to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle
How do we get all the nutrients our bodies need? By eating a well-balanced, varied diet that contains lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and pulses… sounds like a vegan diet, doesn’t it?
The truth is, there’s no such thing as a typical vegan diet – some of us love to cook from scratch and make our own tofu, others adore junk food and chow down on vegan hot dogs with all the saucy trimmings. Lots of people are experimenting with veganism because they’ve learned about the cruelties associated with the production of eggs and dairy, but many are also attracted by the health benefits of a plant-based diet. For those people, increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables they eat, juicing, and selecting whole foods that are high in fibre and low in saturated fats just goes with the vegan territory.
A well-planned vegan diet contains everything you need, but even the best-intentioned of us can find ourselves in need of a boost from time to time, perhaps because we’ve binged on junk food, because we’ve undertaken a physically draining project, or we’ve been unwell.
Here are our top 5 recommendations for vegan health supplements to keep you in peak condition.
B12 is essential for red blood cell formation and for the maintenance of a healthy nervous system. It often crops up in energy drinks and formulations that promise to make you more alert, physically and mentally. It’s important to take B12 seriously – long-term deficiency can cause severe and irreversible damage to the brain and the nervous system.
Our bodies store vitamin B12, but years of a vegan diet that doesn’t include any B12 sources can deplete us. In the 1950s, the Vegan Society became aware that some long-term vegans were showing signs of ill-health, and worked with doctors to track down the problem. The Society went on to develop its own no-frills vitamin B12 supplement which was marketed cheaply to Society members.
Vegan B12 is made by a fermentation process using bacteria. Vegan foods that are fortified with B12 include some cereals, non-dairy milks, yeast extracts and nutritional yeasts.
The way our bodies absorb and use nutrients like vitamins and minerals is complicated. Some micronutrients can’t be used unless something else is present – some aren’t effectively absorbed in the presence of other things. Selecting a supplement that contains just one specific nutrient may not be as effective as you think, although savvy manufacturers are now bundling certain nutrients together in tablets so that everything you need is included. Vitamin C is something of an exception, as it can be worth taking a dose of this particular vitamin if you’re fighting a cold. It plays an important part in the absorption of iron from plant-based sources too – so drinking a glass of orange juice with a meal that contains iron-rich leafy greens does your body a considerable favour.
Modern multi-vitamins are a great way to get everything you need, because they’re carefully researched and balanced. The only problem can be that some of them are too big to swallow! The Vegan Society’s own-brand multi-vitamin pills contain EU recommended daily allowances of:
- Vitamin B2 (1.6mg – 114%)
- Vitamin B6 (2mg – 143%)
- Vitamin B12 (10µg – 400%)
- Vitamin D (10µg – 200%)
- Folic Acid (200µg – 100%)
- Iodine (150µg – 100%)
- Selenium (60µg – 109%)
As a plus, they’re chewable, with a nice blackcurrant flavour.
Sometimes called the ‘sunshine vitamin’, because we can get vitamin D directly from the action of sunlight on our skin. Around 15 minutes per day of sunlight on your face and forearms is usually enough. Things are trickier in the winter, when there’s not much sunlight or it’s too cold to expose much of your skin. It’s an issue amongst people who are house-bound, and elderly people who prefer to stay indoors or cover up with a cardie even on sunny days. However, the idea that wearing sunscreen blocks your body’s ability to create vitamin D from sunlight is a myth.
Vitamin D works with calcium, supporting its absorption to ensure that your teeth and bones stay healthy. Vitamin D supplements have also been used to treat mild depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD), a form of depression that is linked to the winter months when the days are darker.
The best food sources of vitamin D are oily fish and eggs – which are not what vegans call food. Other good sources are fortified foods such as margarines, soya milk and breakfast cereals. When vitamin D is added to food, it’s normally in the form of Vitamin D2, which is derived from plants and suitable for vegans. Vitamin D3 can sometimes be derived from eggs so if you want to invest in a vitamin D supplement, it’s worth shopping around for something that’s definitely vegan.
Iodine is a trace element, and our bodies require it in tiny quantities (150µg per day), but it plays a very important role in the creation of thyroid hormones which regulate our metabolic rate and our ability to control our body temperature. It’s especially important to maintain an adequate intake if you’re pregnant, as deficiency can harm your baby’s brain development. In the typical Western diet, the major source of iodine is milk, so vegans need to get it from other sources, but it’s not all that widespread – vegan sources include beers and lagers, cereal products, sea salt and seaweeds including nori and kombu. The iodine content of vegetables depends upon the soil in which they are grown, and can very considerably. Unfortunately, some vegan foods actually make it harder for the body to absorb iodine – these include soya, flax seeds and raw cruciferous vegetables (such broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts). The World Health Organization is concerned about iodine deficiencies across the whole population, since people are generally drinking less milk, and in some countries including Denmark and Switzerland table salt is routinely iodised (fortified with iodine) – but that’s not a good reason to add salt to your food. Look for multi-vitamin and mineral supplements that include iodine.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids
The omega 3/6/9 issue can be confusing. Our bodies need fatty acids for all sorts of things, including healthy skin and a well-functioning brain, circulatory system and respiratory system. There are two fatty acids that the body can’t make, and these are called Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). One is Omega 3, the other is Omega 6. They’re particularly important for your immune system and blood pressure regulation.
For non-vegan nutrition experts, the go-to source for omega 3s is fish, or fish oils. Vegan sources include walnuts and brazil nuts, flax and hemp seeds and oils, rapeseed (canola) oil, green leafy vegetables and grains.
For your body to function optimally, you need twice as much Omega 6 as Omega 3. It’s actually far easier to get Omega 6 than it is to get Omega 3, and you’ll probably be getting plenty from seeds, nuts, grains, green leafy vegetables and cold-pressed vegetable oils. Unfortunately, if the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 that you are consuming is a long way from 1:2, and especially if it creeps up to greater than 1:4, you’re increasing your risk of heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis and depression.
Omega 9 is not called an Essential fatty acid because the body can make it – as long as you are getting sufficient amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6.
Look for a supplement that contains only Omega 3 and look for one that’s (obviously) not made out of fish oils. Make sure you check that the capsules are vegan-friendly, too – most are still made from gelatine.
The Vegan Society says:
- Very low vitamin B12 intake can cause anaemia and nervous system damage.
- The only reliable animal-free sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 and B12 supplements. Vitamin B12, whether in supplements, fortified foods, or animal products, comes through micro-organisms.
- Achieving an adequate B12 intake is easily achieved through taking one B12 supplement a day providing at least 10 micrograms.