A vegan diet is certainly a healthy choice. But, by choosing a strict plant-based diet, vegans may miss out on some key nutrients. To ensure those on a plant-based diet get the vitamins they need, Dr. Joel Kahn recommends 6 vegan supplements that will keep you healthy.
After 40 years of choosing a plant-based diet for myself and 30 years of telling my patients to do it, too, I still worry when I find vegans eating a diet that is lacking healthy choices. There are many foods that have the vegan label, but they aren’t necessarily the healthiest options. Recently, I’ve even seen two fast-food chains promoting vegan options. While these may work in a pinch, a vegan who is seeking to improve their overall health must ensure their diet includes whole foods with single ingredients and a focus on non-processed basics that include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Beyond avoiding processed junk food, vegans can sometimes forget that they need to be smart about the supplements they choose. It’s a fact of life that our depleted soil and indoor lifestyles can mean we’re not consuming enough vitamins in general. Most of the adults I see in my clinic, whether they follow a vegan diet or not, lack important nutrients. To make up for these deficiencies, here’s the vegan supplements I take to be healthy. (And here’s a hint! The first three on the list are the most important.)
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is important for our brain, nerves and blood health. It’s also part of methylation, the process that regulates homocysteine levels and plays an important role in controlling DNA regulation. Our bodies do not make B12 naturally (neither do plants). It’s made by bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract of other animals. When animal products are eaten, B12 is ingested.
By some estimates, 50 percent of vegans and 10 percent of vegetarians are deficient in vitamin B12. Because such a large percentage of people are lacking this crucial vitamin, this is an essential vegan supplement. I recommend taking about 2,500 ug of B12 once a week, or 250 ug daily, ideally as a liquid, sublingual or chewable form, for better absorption. And just so we’re clear—there is no known risk in taking a bigger amount of B12.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D promotes bone health and is essential in blood pressure and blood glucose control, heart function and brain health. In a study of more than 65,000 England residents, researchers found that vegans had higher levels of fiber, magnesium and vitamins E and C than their meat-eating counterparts. However, they had lower levels of vitamin D.
Direct sunlight on the skin for 20 to 30 minutes a day can give you enough vitamin D, but if you’re not outside, you’ll want to supplement. Vitamin D3 is the form most people use, but it comes from animal sources, such as lanolin, which means it isn’t suitable for vegans. Vegan supplement versions of D3 are also available. I recommend 800 IU a day.
Deficiencies in omega-3s are common regardless of the diet. Because fish isn’t an option for vegans, I usually recommend people take a combined DHA and EPA supplement (the fatty acids that are great for heart and brain health), derived from algae. I tell most patients on a vegan diet to supplement with 250 mg each day while limiting foods rich in omega-6, which may contribute to inflammation. These are mainly in the forms of oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and vegetable oil blends. Overall, just go easy or skip oils for cooking. Finally, add whole foods rich in ALA, the precursor to EPA and DHA. Perfect vegan sources of omega-3s are leafy greens, or 1 to 2 tablespoons a day of ground flaxseeds, a small handful of English walnuts, or chia seeds.
L-carnitine is an amino acid that plays an important role in fueling energy production in the heart and other muscles. Because it’s mainly found in meat, vegetarians have lower levels of it in their muscles. There are also rare reports of heart disease in patients who lack it. Although long-term studies of L-carnitine as a supplement are not available, I recommend a vegan supplement with 500 mg a day—particularly if you’re athletic or have heart disease. I advise patients who have elevated TMAO levels not to take L-carnitine supplements, because it’s is unfavorable for artery health.
Taurine is the most abundant amino acid in the body,and it’s most frequently associated with energy drinks. It’s important for the cardiac immune systems, insulin action, hearing and electrolyte balance. Taurine is typically found in meat and seafood, so vegans often don’t have enough. I recommend vegans supplement with 500 mg a day.
6. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 directs calcium to bones, rather than the arteries, and vitamin K2 works well with vitamin D to promote strong bones and a healthy heart, but it’s also hard to find in plant foods. Our bodies can convert the vitamin K1 found in dark leafy greens to K2, but it’s not clear just how much is being converted. Vitamin K2 can be found in sauerkraut, plant-based kefir, unpasteurized kombucha, vegan kimchi and natto. As our bodies age, there is a reduction in vitamin K2 production, so I recommend that an adult vegan supplement.. There are a number of vegan supplements available, and I suggest adding 50 to 100 ug of vitamin K2 to your diet each day.
Vegan diets are an amazing choice for health, promoting a clean planet and being mindful of animals’ lives. Vegan diets are supported by thousands of medical research studies, and they are endorsed by the United Nations, Oxford University, the USDA Food Guidelines and the Association of Nutrition and Dietitians, but vegan supplements are a key part of health for these non-meat eaters.. Although it may seem annoying to add so many supplements to your daily routine, it’s critical that you’re a “smart vegan” and ensure your body is getting what it needs every day to function at its best.
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