07 Mar Supplementing Vegan
Making the transition from meat eater, pesco-vegetarian or even vegetarian to a completely vegan diet is a journey most of us here at Gently Vegan are on. There’s no pressure and no hurry – we get that you’re on your own path and you will do things in your time frame.
But because we are here to support you, every step of the way, we want to ensure that you tread that path properly, that you aren’t missing out on any vitamins or minerals and that you never feel deprived or like it’s all too hard (which is part of the reason we post so many delicious recipes!). Even those who aren’t on this path might be missing out on some essential nutrients, so we want to support them, too. Anyone altering their diet in any way should seek medical advice before doing so, to ensure that they remain in optimal health.
To this end, we checked in with Dr. David Cannata, Product Expert at Swisse, a manufacturer of many supplementing vegan, for his advice on the vitamins and minerals you should be mindful of as you adjust to this new plant-based lifestyle.
Essential for transporting oxygen and nutrients around our body and to our cells, many experts believe that vegetarians and vegans should actually eat more iron-rich foods than their meat-eating counterparts. Why?
“The simple answer is that animal products are the most efficient sources of iron,” says Dr. Cannata.
As uncomfortable as that is to hear, science tells us that the Heme iron found in meat is more easily absorbed that the non-Heme iron in vegetables.
That isn’t bad news though! It simply means you get to enjoy more of the types of foods you really love, such as legumes, grains, green leafy vegetables and tomatoes. Eat them in small amounts, frequently throughout the day, to maximise absorption. Include vitamin C-rich foods with them, as it enhances iron absorption when consumed alongside it.
If you think you’re lacking in iron, see your GP for a blood test and consider picking up some iron supplements, as recommended by your doctor or a clinically practising naturopath.
“Ask for the complete iron assessment,” advises Dr. Cannata. This includes; 1) Serum iron (level of iron in the blood); 2) Ferritin (helps assess iron stores in the body) and 3) TIBC (Total Iron Binding Capacity – how well iron is transported in the body).”
A vegan-friendly iron supplement such as Swisse Ultiboost Iron Tablets, $11.95, can also help, although if you are of Northern European descent, ensure that you double check your Serum Iron levels, which will indicate if you carry the Haemochromatosis gene – a disease which causes the body to absorb too much iron, which can in turn cause damage to the organs.
Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy cells and DNA. “The trouble for vegans and vegetarians is, the only natural sources are animal based – meat, fish, dairy and eggs,” says Dr. Cannata. “Our bodies don’t produce it, so it’s important to be aware that you are getting your recommended daily intake.”
Thankfully, there’s plenty of vegan and vegetarian-specialty foods that are fortified with B12, such as soy milk and certain tofu or tempeh meat substitutes, but if you are worried you might be lacking, visit your GP for a blood test to determine what supplements you might need.
“The other B Group vitamins are also important for the energy production, red blood cell development and day to day wellness,” stresses Dr. Cannata. “Again, they are readily available in animal products, so vegans and vegetarians need to be conscious to seek out alternative vitamin-rich food sources.”
B1 or Thiamine can be found in whole grains, enriched breads and flours and nuts and seeds, as well as peas and dried beans. B2 is also found in green, leafy vegetables, beans and nuts. Look for B3 in avocado, beans, nuts and potatoes, whilst mushrooms, whole grains cereals, kale, avocadoes, broccoli, cabbage and lentils will give you B5.
Bananas are a great source of vitamin B6, as are whole grains, beans, nuts and the ever faithful avocado. B7 or Biotin is found in chocolate, which is great news, as well as beans and nuts, while folate or B9 is plentiful in green leafy vegetables, oranges, beetroot, beans and lentils.
In terms of supplements, Swisse has two vegan options: Ultiboost High Strength Vitamin B12, $17.99, and Ultiboost Mega B+, priced from $24.95.
DHEA is a hormone that all humans produce naturally in the adrenal glands and it in turn helps produce other essential hormones like oestrogen and testosterone. “The concern with a plant-based diet is that it can lead to lower cholesterol levels and your body needs cholesterol in order to produce DHEA,” says Dr. Cannata.
DHEA supplementation is a controversial topic in health and medical circles, but the good news is, you can eat plenty of plant-based foods that will support healthy cholesterol levels.
“Look for foods rich in essential fatty acids,” advises Dr. Cannata. “These include a variety of oils including flaxseed, olive and coconut oils. Avocadoes are also great, as are nuts and seeds.”
“Essential for bones strength, density and health, the go-to source of calcium globally is dairy products, which isn’t great for vegans,” says Dr. Cannata.
Thankfully, you don’t have to look far for excellent plant-based sources. Think: green, leafy vegetables and calcium fortified tofu, soy milk or juices.
Again, if you have even an inkling that you might be lacking, have a test to determine this and speak to your doctor or naturopath about supplements.
Dr. Cannata suggests Swisse Ultiboost Magnesium Powder, $29.99 as a great option here, as it is vegan-friendly, contains calcium for bone health, as well as zinc and vitamin C, so supports immunity as well as helps muscles relax. Be very careful with which supplements you choose, as many calcium supplements contain vitamin D3, which is sourced from sheep’s lanolin and therefore not vegan.
Common blood tests all vegans should have
Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, Dr. Cannata suggests visiting your GP every 12 months to have these common and simple tests run and ensure your health is always at its best. If you’re feeling fatigued or run down, opt for every six months.
- CBC – Complete Blood Count with Differential and Platelets
This group of tests determines general health status – if you are anaemic, immune compromised or have an infection. They will pick up on low red blood count, haemoglobin and haematocrit, which are signs of anaemia and may explain why you are feeling tired or fatigued, if indeed you are.
- CMP – Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
This is a group of tests that give an indication of the health of your liver, kidneys and electrolyte acid/base balance. Among other things, they measure the status of blood proteins – low protein levels can be a common concern for vegans.
- Lipid Profile (Cholesterol)
This group of tests measures the level of fats in your blood, like cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. The main reason why vegans get this test is the concern cholesterol levels might be too low (<135 mg/dL). Cholesterol is an essential building block for steroid hormones in the body like DHEA, oestrogen and testosterone.
- Iron status (Ferritin, Serum Iron and TIBC)
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency amongst vegans. Serum Iron measures iron levels in the blood, ferritin assesses iron stores in the body and TIBC (total iron binding capacity) assesses how well iron is transported in the body. The complete testing will help determine your iron status and if it is a factor for symptoms like fatigue, weakness, dizziness and headaches.
- Vitamin B12 levels
As the name suggests, this measures Vitamin B12 levels, which is important for tissue and cellular repair. B12 deficiency can be common in vegans leading to megaloblastic anaemia.
- Folate, RBC
This test gives an indication of folate levels. In vegans, folate levels might be higher than normal, which when combined with a low Vitamin B12 status can magnify and also mask B12 deficiency.
This picks up on any elevated homocysteine levels in the blood to provide further assessment in determining B12 and folate deficiencies. High homocysteine levels are associated with an increased list of various conditions such as heart disease, stroke, dementia and recurrent pregnancy loss.
with Catherine Carr