The supplement industry in the US contributes approximately $37 billion dollars to our economy annually. This means that a TON of us are taking some type of supplement daily. In fact, the CDC has reported that over ½ of the adult population in the US is taking one or more supplement.
Let’s be clear: supplements should not be used in place of a healthy diet. Taking a supplement doesn’t negate the effects of crappy food. For starters, many studies have shown that supplements aren’t nearly as well absorbed as nutrients from whole foods. In addition, consuming nutrients in their whole food form means you are getting the synergistic effect of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and macronutrients together.
However, there are several cases where a supplement may be necessary. If you are following a strict plant-based (vegan) diet, you likely want to consider taking vitamin B12, omega-3, Vitamin D and potentially probiotic supplements from a reputable brand (here is a list of trusted brands) and here’s why…
***DISCLAIMER: Always speak with your doctor or dietitian before beginning a supplementation protocol.***
A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that vitamin B12 deficiency among vegans ranges from 48% to 86%. This deficiency is due to the fact that vitamin B12 is made by bacteria in the gut of animals and therefore is not commonly found in plant foods. Plant-based or not, the IOM (Institute of Medicine) also recommends that adults 50 years and older take a B12 supplement because as we age, we become less efficient at absorbing B12 (thank you, aging process).
A B12 deficiency can result in anemia and nervous system damage, which is likely to present in the form of depression, a tingling or numbness in extremities and a loss of motor skills.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
An omega-3 supplement is another you may want to consider when transitioning to a strict plant-based diet. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two essential fatty acids that are most bioavailable in fish oils. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor to EPA and DHA but the process of converting ALA to EPA or DHA is not efficient in our bodies. Conversion rates of ALA to EPA and DHA are reported to be less than 15%.
Why do we care about Omega-3’s anyway? Omega 3’s work to lower inflammation and triglyceride levels in the body, which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, because DHA is an important part of cell membranes in the brain, DHA has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults.
Vitamin D deficiency is very common among all Americans, but eating a fully plant-based diet may increase the risk for deficiency. A 2011 study reported that 41.6% of the American population is deficient in Vitamin D. If you aren’t lucky enough to live in a place that is warm and sunny all year round (where you can stand outside and you skin can do the work of creating active Vitamin D), your chances of being deficient are even higher.
Vitamin D deficiencies are linked with decreased immunity and fatigue as well as chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer and low bone mineral density.
Each and every one of us has a community of bacteria living inside of us. These friendly microbes are absolutely vital for our overall health and wellbeing. As a whole, these bacteria are commonly referred to as our microbiome, and can affect many facets of our health including mood, immunity, disease risk, digestion and much more.
Whether you are plant-based or not, taking a probiotic, or a supplement containing several strains of beneficial bacteria, is an effective way to nourish your microbiome. We are big fans of LoveBug Probiotics. When it comes to selecting a probiotic, researchers are still trying to determine if quantity (how much bacteria a probiotic contains) or quality (which strains of bacteria are present in that probiotic) is more important. Since there are still a lot of unknowns, look for a probiotic containing at least these two strains: L. acidophilus and B. bifidum. These two strains have proven benefits for your gut.
The Bottom Line
There’s no reason to go overboard with supplements because a plant-based diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains is an excellent source for most vitamins and minerals. However, you should consider taking a vitamin B12, omega-3, vitamin D and probiotic supplement (but first, speak with a registered dietitian or doctor!). For more information and details on how much of each supplement to take, head to the National Institutes of Health.
Photo Credit: The Thirty