Do You Need To Supplement On A Plant-Based Diet? – PlantX Canada

Do You Need To Supplement On A Plant-Based Diet?

The vegan diet was originally famous for weight loss and clean eating, but it’s so much more than that. A healthy vegan diet can improve one’s overall sense of well-being. In fact, the benefits of a vegan diet are evidenced by medical research. 

For one, studies show vegans tend to have lower blood pressure and are less likely to be obese or diabetic, putting them at a lower risk of developing heart problems and cardiovascular morbidity. [1] However, the plant-exclusive diet makes some people wonder if it’s adequate.

What are some other benefits of a vegan diet?

  • No synthetic hormones. Used to produce heavier, meatier animals and increase milk production, these hormones can throw our internal balance off and create hormonal problems, which can sometimes lead to cancer. 
  • Freedom from dairy-related hypersensitivities. As children mature and transition into adult food, they naturally gradually lose the ability to digest animal milk. Choosing to breastfeed and introducing plant milk helps ensure vegans get proteins without indigestion.
  • More dietary fibre and vitamin C. These are exclusively found in plants, and vegans get more through their diet. Dietary fibre aids digestion, makes us feel fuller for longer and prevents over-eating. Vitamin C improves gut function and overall immunity.
  • Vegan foods are cruelty-free! To many farms, animals are just machines. Discouraging consumption of animal by-products discourages inhumane farming practices.

So what makes a healthy vegan diet? 

A healthy vegan diet must include nutrients necessary for survival. Most essential nutrients can be found in plants, but it can be challenging to find balance if you don’t know what to look for.

The challenge lies in animal-derived nutrients, which begs the question, do vegans need supplements?

What animal-derived nutrients are essential?

We have compiled a list of must-have nutrients that are generally animal-derived.

1. Vitamin B12:

vitamin b12

    Vitamin B12 is a vitamin naturally found in meat. It is necessary to produce red blood cells, which is why a lack of vitamin B12 can cause anaemia. It is also necessary for nerve function, and a deficiency can cause neurological disorders.

    Recommended Dietary Allowance: 2.4mcg/day

    What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

    An important note: not all forms of vitamin B12 is bioavailable. To make sure your body can use the vitamin B12 from your food, make sure it is either methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, hydroxocobalamin or the synthetic form cyanocobalamin.

    Our Verdict

    If you can introduce these foods into your diet, you probably won’t need to supplement. 

    2. Creatine 

    Creatine is an organic compound necessary for muscle function and health. It is naturally synthesized in the liver and kidneys, but it is easily eliminated from the body through urinary excretion, which means a portion of daily requirements needs to come from food. Deficiencies can cause neurological defects/disorders and premature ageing.

    Normal level: 2–12 mg/L plasma creatine concentration

    What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

    Unfortunately, creatine is not found in any plant food. Creatine supplementation may only be achieved with synthetic creatine. 

    Our Verdict

    Unless, your lifestyle requires rigorous movements, like in the case of athletes, you probably don’t need to take supplements. But if you have symptoms that indicate a lack of creatine, like muscle wasting, fatigue and weight loss, your doctor might recommend supplementation with a synthetic form of creatine, creatine monohydrate, which is totally vegan. Another benefit of a vegan diet!

    3. Carnosine

    Carnosine

      Carnosine’s name comes from the root word “carn”, meaning flesh. Like creatine, it is important for muscle function. It is an antioxidant, a geroprotector—an anti-ageing substance that prolongs life, and a chelator. It is synthesized by the body from l-histidine and beta-alanine. 

      Normal levels: 5-10 mM wet weight or 15-40 mmol/kg dry weight 

      What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

      Carnosine is only present in meat but you won’t have to eat meat to get carnosine. Your body can make your own! Just eat foods that are rich in beta-alanine and l-histidine and your body will synthesize it for you. 

      Histidine foods:

      • Nuts
      • Seeds
      • Whole grains
      • Wheat germ

      Beta-alanine foods:

      • Soybeans
      • Corn
      • Whole grains
      • Legumes
      • Brewer’s yeast
      • Avocado
      • Cereals

      Our Verdict

      Vegans usually have lower carnosine levels due to a lower intake of amino acids necessary to produce carnosine, but adjusting your intake of the above foods can help normalize your carnosine levels. 

      Also, studies show exercising decreases carnosine excretion, which leads to greater muscle carnosine concentrations. [2] In short, no supplementation necessary. 

      4. Vitamin D 

      Vitamin D is made up of fat-soluble compounds that help the body absorb calcium. It is synthesized in the skin following sun exposure and may also be acquired by eating fatty fish or milk. A deficiency can cause rickets.

      Recommended Dietary Allowance: Dietary recommendations vary per age group

      • In infants: 10 mcg/day
      • 1-70 y/o: 15 mcg/day
      • 71+: 20 mcg/day

      What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

      Regular mushrooms naturally have vitamin D. Some mushrooms though are irradiated, that is, bathed in sunlight, before they are sold. Why? Mushrooms produce more vitamin D2 when exposed to sunlight, and irradiated mushrooms have about 10 μg D2/100 g. [3]

      Our Verdict

      Vitamin D is fat-soluble and stays in your body until you use it. Overloading on vitamin D can be toxic to your system. It is advised not to self-medicate and consult your doctor before taking any vitamin D supplement. And if you’re a vegan who doesn’t get enough sun, we recommend getting tested.

      5. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

      Docosahexaenoic acid

        DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid essential for brain, skin, and retina development. It is found in breast milk and fish but can also be synthesized from alpha-linolenic acid, an omega acid manufactured by plants.

        Recommended Dietary Allowance: 200 mg

        What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

        Eat ALA-rich food!

        • Flax seeds
        • Chia
        • Walnuts
        • Canola oil
        • Brocolli
        • Algal oil (oil of algae)

        Our Verdict

        DHA is important for fetal development. A healthy vegan diet might still not be enough to provide reasonable DHA to a developing fetus and infant. It is therefore necessary to consult your doctor if you are vegan and breastfeeding or planning to get pregnant. 

        6. Heme iron

        heme iron

          Heme iron is acquired from red meat, seafood and poultry. It combines with other components to form haemoglobin, a protein necessary for oxygen transport. Heme iron is easily absorbed by the body. In contrast, non-heme iron is not easily absorbed, which is why many vegans are at risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia.

          Recommended Dietary Allowance: Dietary recommendations vary per age group [4]

          • 19-50 y/o: 8 mg daily for men, 18 mg for women, 
          • Pregnant women: 27 mg
          • Lactating women: 9 mg 

          What To Eat If You’re Plant Based?

          Heme iron is only found in meat. Meeting the daily requirement for iron means eating more non-heme food sources. Some foods with non-heme iron are

          • Whole grains
          • Nuts
          • Seeds
          • Legumes
          • Potato with skin
          • Dark chocolate
          • Avocado
          • Spinach
          • Iron-fortified grain

          Our Verdict

          It is important to listen to your body. Vegan women are at a higher risk for deficiency because of menstruation but supplementation can be toxic if not regulated. Symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia include pale skin, fatigue, shortness of breath, cold extremities and light-headedness. If you have these symptoms, it is best to get evaluated so you’ll know which kind of iron to take.

          7. Taurine

          Taurine

            Taurine is an organic compound involved in antioxidation, calcium signalling, development of muscle, membrane stabilization and many more. Taurine is naturally derived from cysteine. It also naturally occurs in meat and breast milk.

            Normal levels: average daily intake is around 400 mg 

            What To Eat If You’re Plant Based

            Eat foods high in taurine such as:

            Or eat foods high in cysteine. These are:

            • Sunflower seeds
            • Legumes
            • Oatmeal
            • Soy
            • Dates
            • Ginseng
            • Wheat
            • Pepper
            • Nuts
            • Cabbage

            Our Verdict

            Since taurine can be synthesized in the body, there is little risk of developing a deficiency, and supplementation is usually not necessary. But it is still wise to look for signs like muscle weakness, eye abnormalities, renal dysfunction, seizures and anxiety. 

            8. Essential amino acids 

            Essential amino acids are amino acids that can only be acquired by ingesting amino-acid rich food. Most research says there are no plants that carry all amino acids in appreciable amounts, so even soy and corn, both plants that contain all essential amino acids, are not considered a complete protein. There are, however, studies that say quinoa, a gluten-free crop, is a complete protein source—wonderful news for vegans![5] [6]

            Deficiency in one amino acid can inhibit protein development. This could mean developmental problems, poor immunity and increased risk of infection. For a vegan, it is therefore important to mix and match your diet, to make sure you get adequate amounts.

            Here’s a list of plant based food sources to help you plan your amino acid intake:

            1. Histidine - rice, quinoa, buckwheat, cauliflower
            2. Isoleucine - buckwheat, quinoa, soy, lentils
            3. Leucine - buckwheat, quinoa, soy, lentils
            4. Lysine - spinach, watercress, lettuce, grains, beans
            5. Methionine - quinoa, oats, sunflower seeds, buckwheat
            6. Phenylalanine - quinoa, soybean, buckwheat
            7. Threonine - nuts, beans, seeds
            8. Tryptophan - seeds, walnuts, lentils
            9. Valine - seeds, beans, lentils

            Verdict:

            Maintaining a healthy vegan diet means balancing your nutrient intake. In order to prevent amino acid deficiency, make sure you eat different amino acid-rich plant foods to complete your amino acid requirements.

            Conclusion

            So you see, a healthy vegan diet can be sufficient to meet daily nutritional requirements if you plan your meals ahead. Not sure if you’re on the right track? Your body is usually smart enough to tell you if you are lacking in nutrients. 

            If you are experiencing lack of sleep, fatigue, digestive problems, brain fog, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties or anything out of the ordinary, it might be time to visit your doctor and have you assessed if you need to take supplements or modify your diet.

            References:

            [1] Hyunju Kim, Laura E. Caulfield, Vanessa Garcia‐Larsen, Lyn M. Steffen, Josef Coresh, and Casey M. Rebholz. 7 Aug 2019. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults
            <https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865>

            [2] Julie Y. Culbertson, Richard B. Kreider, Mike Greenwood, Matthew Cooke. 25 Jan 2010. Effects of Beta-Alanine on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance: A Review of the Current Literature
            <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257613/>

            [3] Glenn Cardwell, Janet F. Bornman, Anthony P. James, Lucinda J. Black. 13 Oct 2018. A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D.
            <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6213178/>

            [4] Iron, The Nutrition Source, accessed 24 Nov 2021. <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/iron/>

            [5] Quinoa, The Nutrition Source, accessed 24 Nov 2021. <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/quinoa/>

            [6] Schlick, Greg & Bubenheim, David. (1993). Quinoa: An emerging new crop with potential for CELSS.
            <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24326431_Quinoa_An_emerging_new_crop_with_potential_for_CELSS>

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