There are many reasons why someone might choose to follow a plant-based or vegan diet. Whether you’re looking to lessen your carbon footprint, improve your health, or reduce animal suffering, a vegan lifestyle comes with many positives. However, taking the leap from an omnivorous diet to a vegan or plant based diet can often feel overwhelming. When switching your diet, it is important that you continue to meet your daily nutrient and calorie requirements. Luckily, as long as you focus on eating plenty of whole foods as well as proper supplementation, meeting your nutritional needs on a plant-based diet is totally achievable.
What vitamins should I incorporate into my plant based diet?
We’re glad you asked! It's important to recognize that 92% of Americans are deficient in one or more vitamin or mineral, so incorporating nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts/legumes and whole grains as well as supplementing when necessary will be beneficial to most everyone, vegan or otherwise (1) (2). While a vegan diet that focuses on whole foods, rather than processed vegan substitutes, can meet most of your nutrient needs, there are some vitamins and minerals that we simply can’t achieve through plant-based foods alone.
Vitamin B12 is an extremely important nutrient, and every cell in our body requires it to function optimally: vitamin B12 is used to make fatty acids, amino acids, and to repair and replicate DNA. Given that B12 is at the bases of cellular regeneration, a deficiency can result in fatigue, confusion, mood imbalances, anemia, and more (3).
Vitamin B12 is unique in that it’s the only essential nutrient that is found almost exclusively in animal products, with the richest food sources being meat, fish and seafood. Aside from animal products, B12 can be found in algae, such as dulse seaweeds and nori. It is recommended that anyone over the age of 14 consume at least 2.4mcg of vitamin B12 daily (4).
With an estimated 40% of the population vitamin B12 deficient (including both meat-eaters and vegans), it’d be wise to supplement B12 daily to fill the gaps in your diet (5). Each GEM bite contains 70% DV of vitamin B12 in a uniquely plant-based form.
Similarly to vitamin B12, it can be tough to meet your vitamin D needs through diet alone. In fact, it is estimated that up to 75% of US teens and adults are vitamin D deficient (6). There are very few foods that actually contain vitamin D—rather, our body synthesizes vitamin D through sunlight. Unfortunately, factors such as working indoors, skin pigment, sunscreen, and where we live can affect how much time we need in the sun to meet adequate intake.
Vitamin D is found in only a handful of foods, most of which are not plant-based. Foods that contain vitamin D include eggs, fish, and fortified products such as milk and orange juice. Even if you consume these foods, it can be hard to meet the daily recommended allowance of 15mcg per day. Vitamin D plays an important role in immune support, bone health, and mood, and a deficiency can manifest as fatigue, bone pain, muscle aches, and mood changes such as depression (7).
Additionally, only 10-15% of dietary calcium can be absorbed in the absence of vitamin D, making vitamin D the backbone of a healthy skeleton. If you’re suffering from a calcium deficiency, you might not need an extra glass of fortified plant ‘mylk’, but rather need more vitamin D. Each GEM bite contains 20.5mcg, or 100% DV of plant-based vitamin D to help you meet your needs.
Have you ever had your doctor tell you that you need to increase your iron intake? If so, you’re not alone: iron deficiency is the #1 nutrient deficiency in the world, with an estimated 80% of people lacking enough iron (8). While technically a mineral, iron is used by the body to create hemoglobin and myoglobin— proteins in red blood cells used to transport oxygen from the lungs to the body and muscles. Additionally, iron is used to build some hormones (9). Iron deficiency can result in a host of health issues, such as iron deficiency anemia, fatigue, pale skin, weakness, shortness of breath, and more.
Iron deficiency tends to be more common among vegetarians and vegans, primarily because iron is primarily found in meat and fish, as well as beans, dark leafy greens and fortified foods. Additionally, heme iron (found in animal products) is better absorbed than non-heme iron (found in plants), resulting in lower iron stores among vegetarians and vegan (10). Interestingly, despite having lower iron stores, vegans and vegetarians do not have a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia.
How can this be?
- Foods common on a plant-based diet, such as spinach, lentils and tofu, are rich in non-heme iron.
- Non-heme iron is better absorbed in the presence of vitamin C (vitamin C increases absorption by sixfold!). Consuming vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy, both of which are high in vitamin C and iron, can help result in high levels of iron absorption.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian and incorporate lots of vegetables, whole grains and legumes into your diet, then there shouldn’t be much concern of iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia. However, lack of diversity in your diet or a focus on processed foods, excessive caffeine intake or antacid use, or menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding) can all decrease iron absorption or intake (8) (11). The RDA for pre-menopausal women is 18 mg/day and for post-menopausal women is 8 mg/day. If you are vegetarian or vegan, it is recommended you consume up to 32 mg/day due to the fact that plant-based iron sources are non-heme iron (12).
DHA and EPA
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that support our heart, brain, metabolic and joint health. There are three kinds of omega 3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is found abundantly in foods such as soy, walnuts, flax, hemp, and chia seeds and their oils as well as canola oil and camelina oil. While ALA can be consumed through plant-based foods, DHA and EPA are primarily found in fatty fish, and in smaller amounts in eggs and seaweed.
Since EPA and DHA are mainly found in animal sources, they can often be missed on a plant-based or vegan diet. However, EPA and DHA perform many functions in the body, making them vitally important. EPA is used to help reduce blood clots, inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol. DHA forms a large portion of gray matter in the brain, and supplementation can help reduce depression and improve cognition (13).
While the body is able to convert ALA into EPA and EPA into DHA, this process is highly inefficient, and it is estimated that only 5-6% of ALA is converted (14). If you follow a vegan or plant-based diet, aim to incorporate a DHA supplement sourced from seaweed. Each GEM bite contains 100mg of omega-3 fatty acids sourced from spirulina and chlorella, one of few plant-based sources that contain ALA, EPA and DHA.
The bottom line
The amount of supplementation necessary on a vegan or plant-based diet will largely depend on your eating habits and daily nutrition. A diet rich in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can largely satisfy your nutritional needs. However, it is wise to supplement when needed (especially vitamin D and vitamin B12) regardless of if you follow a plant-based or omnivorous diet. Always consult with your healthcare provider to ensure you are meeting your vitamin and mineral needs through both diet and supplementation.