One of the most common questions I get from beginners going plant based is what about Vitamin B12? And what supplements should I take on a plant based diet? I’m going to give you the skinny on the most important supplements to consider on a vegan or plant based diet. And one of these is absolutely a must!
It can be easy to think that since you are eating a whole food plant based diet with all these fruits and vegetables that you are totally covered! And trust me, you are getting tens of thousands of phytonutrients that can never be put into a pill.
But there are just a few critical nutrients that you need to be aware of to make sure you aren’t missing out.
Going whole food plant based was all about my best health, so I always want to make sure that I’m getting the optimal nutrition and not missing anything critical.
Vitamin B12 is absolutely critical to anyone on a plant based diet
The first vitamin I’m going to start with is vitamin B12. And this vitamin is absolutely critical to supplement on a vegan, vegetarian, or plant based diet. EVEN if you are still eating meat a few times a week, you can still become deficient.
I know this first hand because 2 years ago, I got my blood levels check and I was low in Vitamin B12! I hadn’t even been 100% vegan at that point, consuming small amounts of meat or dairy a week and STILL I was very low. So it can happen fast!
They say that we only have about 3 months of vitamin B12 stored in reserves. But everyone is different and I clearly didn’t have much to begin with!
Actually, even many meat eaters are deficient because they lack enough intrinsic factor, the enzyme in the stomach that breaks it down so it can be absorbed. As we get older, we have less of this intrinsic factor, so B12 deficiency is common in those over 65.
What is vitamin B12 and where does it come from?
Vitamin B12 actually doesn’t come from animals. They don’t make it. They are actually just the “middleman” or “middlecow”….
Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil. When the cows (or chicken, pig, etc) eats grass, they also ingest soil with bacteria in it. They then store the vitamin B12 in their tissues which omnivores then eat.
Factory farmed animals have much lower levels of vitamin B12 than grass-fed free-range so most meat eaters aren’t actually getting as much as they think.
We used to get vitamin B12 from vegetables & stream water, but because we clean & sanitize everything so well, we don’t get it from those sources anymore. But that’s a good thing because we also don’t get cholera!
What is Vitamin B12 good for?
Vitamin B12 has many important functions in the body including neurological, metabolism, and red blood cells and being deficient can have life-threatening consequences!
Now there are studies showing that vitamin B12 is very important in keep homocysteine levels low. The vegetarians who didn’t supplement with vitamin B12 had a much higher risk of stroke than meat eaters! So while all other markers of chronic disease go down on a plant based diet, if you don’t get adequate vitamin B12, then your risk of stroke can actually increase.
What are the symptoms of low vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is known as the “Great Masquerader” because it can be so sneaky and have soooo many different symptoms.
Some of the many symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Numbness in hands & feet
- Muscle cramps
- Difficulty walking
- Swollen, inflamed tongue
- Difficulty thinking or reasoning
- Memory loss
- Depression, mania, psychosis, hallucinations
- Bleeding in your eyes 😱
Are there plant based foods that are high in vitamin B12?
There are a few vegan foods that are high in vitamin B12, but mostly they are fortified and you would have to eat A LOT everyday to keep your stores replenished.
Some of these foods are nutritional yeast, fortified plant milks, fortified tofu, and fortified breakfast cereal.
Without supplementation, you are unlikely to be getting enough B12 on plant based diet.
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How much vitamin B12 supplement should you take on a plant based diet?
Even though the current RDA is only about 1.8 mg, many experts believe that number is too low because most people don’t absorb enough of it and can become deficient.
Dr. Michael Greger recommends 2,000 mg a week or 50mg a day cyanocobalamin (see the back of the bottle) of a chewable, sublingual, or liquid taken on an empty stomach. Those over 65 should take at least 1,000 mg a day.
Vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin, so there is little risk of toxicity because you pee out the rest.
Vitamin B12 supplements are very inexpensive and can be found at any grocery store or pharmacy.
Bottom line: Vitamin B12 supplementation for anyone on a vegetarian, vegan, or plant based diet is critical.
Vitamin D – “The Sunshine Vitamin”
Vitamin D is also very important for our health and MOST Americans are deficient whether or not they are plant based.
Actually, Vitamin D is a hormone that our body makes when we are in the sun. That’s why it is commonly referred to as “The Sunshine Vitamin”.
Most of us spend much more time indoors and when we are in the sun, we slather up with SPF 1000 sunscreen🙋♀️. It’s no wonder so many people have low vitamin D.
It only takes 15 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin (without sunscreen) to get your daily dose of vitamin D.
But the farther you live from the equator as in northern parts of America and Canada or if you have darker skin, you have much higher risk of being deficient. Or even if your area is cloudy a lot (like in winter time), you aren’t getting enough direct sun exposure.
In fact, my husband found out his vitamin D was low 2 years ago from a routine blood test! We had no idea!
What happens when your vitamin D is low?
Most of us have heard that vitamin D is important for bone health, preventing osteoporosis and rickets.
But low rates of vitamin D are also linked to cancer and even depression!
I think it’s why I love summer and being outside in the sun so much – it makes me feel great and boosts my mood!
What types of foods are high in vitamin D?
Not many foods are naturally high in vitamin D, with the exception of mushrooms.
But many foods have been fortified with vitamin D like plant milks and breakfast cereals.
But again, if you aren’t spending much time in direct sunlight every day or drinking enough plant milk and eating mushrooms daily, you can easily become deficient.
How much vitamin D supplement should you take?
There are vegan vitamin D3 supplements made from lichen and because it is a fat soluble vitamin you should not exceed 5,000 IU a day. Dr. Michael Greger recommends 2,000 IU up to 4,000 IU a day depending if you are overweight, obese, or over 65.
If you suspect you have a deficiency, talk to your doctor and have your blood tested. They may prescribe you a much higher dose for a short period of time to bring your levels up to normal.
But you should NEVER take more on your own without the supervision of a doctor because you can develop toxicity due to it being a fat-soluble vitamin.
Toxicity from too much vitamin D can cause:
- Poor appetite
- Kidney failure
- Bone loss – because too much can affect Vitamin K’s role in keeping calcium in the bones
I take vitamin D3 in the fall and winter every day because it’s cloudy and I don’t spend as much time outdoors in the cold. In the summer, I’m outside in the sun daily soaking up my vitamin D, so I take less during those months.
Omega 3 fatty acids without fish oil supplements?
Another common question I get from those beginning a plant based diet is what about the fish oil I’m taking?
Well, omega-3 is a somewhat confusing topic because it has to do more with the diet that most Americans are eating and that is SAD (Standard American Diet).
SAD is high in omega-6 fatty acids (which are pro-inflammatory) from processed oils and animal products and low in omega-3 fatty acids (which are anti-inflammatory) from not enough whole plant foods.
But it turns out we need BOTH omega-3 AND omega-6, but in the right proportion.
We need a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. But if you are eating the typical American diet, then your ratio is probably more like 200:1 which means your diet is much more pro-inflammatory.
Getting enough omega-3 is important for brain health and heart health.
But what if you are eating a whole food plant based diet? Well, since you are cutting out most or all animal foods and processed oils/foods, then your ratio is going to naturally be closer to that 2:1 or 3:1 range.
Fish oils smell fishy
The problem with fish & fish oils that too many people aren’t talking about is that fish is highly polluted and contaminated. Mercury, dioxins, microplastics, PCBs, and so many other chemicals that are in fish – whether or not they are wild caught or farm raised (although farm raised is much worse). Yes, even the “beloved” Salmon, and especially Tuna!
There is a reason why pregnant women are told not to eat fish more than a couple times a week because the mercury & chemicals will harm the developing fetus. I’m sorry, but if it’s bad for pregnant moms & babies, it’s probably not good for the rest of us either….
So while you might get a benefit from taking fish oil if on the SAD, almost all that is negated from the toxic chemicals you are also getting a daily dose of.
Also, keep in mind that most fish oils that are tested on the market are rancid, which means they’ve gone bad and is why you have gross fishy burps.
Vegan food sources of omega-3
In fact, you don’t need to eat fish to get a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Many whole plant foods contain good levels of omega-3 including:
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale
- Walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds are all HIGH in omega 3s
Notice how walnuts actually look like the shape of the brain? Funny….maybe that’s not a coincidence.
Just by getting a small serving of walnuts, chia seeds, or ground flaxseed daily you can make sure you are getting a good intake of omega-3s. I like to sprinkle ground flaxseed on muesli or add it to my smoothies. You can also make chia seed puddings for breakfast.
Should you take a vegan omega-3 supplement?
This is where the information is not 100% clear and I think lends to the fact that we are all different bio-individuals and have different requirements. If you are eating a mostly whole food plant based diet, you are most likely going to be fine in the omega-3 department, especially if you are eating cruciferous vegetables and some nuts/seeds higher in omega-3s daily.
However, there are some people that don’t convert the omega-3s to the bioavailable DHA & EPA forms that the body needs. If someone is low in omega-3 then this can affect their brain health and risk of developing Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or depression.
So for this reason Dr. Fuhrman recommends that people take a Vegan Algae supplement of 200-300 mg WITH EPA & DHA.
It’s very important to note that getting too much omega-3s is not good either and there is a sweet spot.
Side effects of too much omega-3’s is associated with diarrhea, stroke, high blood sugar, bleeding, low blood pressure, acid reflux, and insomnia. Some long term studies have also linked higher levels of omega 3 with with prostate cancer.
So, if you feel like you should be taking an omega-3 supplement, make sure it’s made from vegan algae source with EPA & DHA and is no more than 300 mg.
The best way to know for sure if you need something like omega-3 is to get a blood test! And then you can make a well-informed decision.
I hope that this information has been helpful! Do you have questions about other supplements? Comment below and let me know what you think!
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