I’m vegan, do I need to take supplements?
Q: I turned vegan three months ago and I’m really enjoying it but should I be worried about nutritional deficiencies? Should I be taking any supplements? – Belinda
If you eat a vegan diet, you need to ensure you obtain optimal levels of specific nutrients that can be too low when you eat this way. With any particular diet or way of eating, it is the food choices that are made within the context of that diet that will determine whether it is nutritionally adequate, not the label.
The nutrients that you need to be particularly mindful of as a vegan include vitamin B12, iron (particularly for menstruating women), zinc, calcium and omega3 fatty acids.
vitamin B12 stores will generally last a couple of years, however a deficiency can cause irreversible damage so it’s vital that you don’t let yourself get depleted. Plant-based sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, chickpeas, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and dates. However, although iron is present in these foods, it is not at high levels nor is it in a form that the body easily absorbs.
For some vegetarians and vegans, the body utilises the iron from vegetable sources efficiently, whereas for others, less so. Absorption of plant-based iron is enhanced in the presence of vitamin C, so including some vitamin C-rich foods (such as broccoli, capsicum and lemon) with your meals can help. It’s also important to avoid drinking tea, coffee and wine with meals, as tannins in these can bind the iron, which inhibits absorption.
It’s important to have your iron levels checked before supplementing, as an excess of iron in the body is also problematic, and some of the symptoms of iron overload are actually similar to those of deficiency. Food sources of zinc for you include sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. These contain around 2mg of zinc per 30g serve. Nuts and legumes also contain small amounts of zinc. Women require 8mg of zinc per day and men require 14mg per day to prevent deficiency. Plant-based sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and kale), figs, sesame seeds, tahini and almonds. If you are choosing to consume a non-dairy milk (such as almond or rice milk), there are calciumfortified options available which can help to ensure you are meeting your calcium requirements. You can check the label to see if it has calcium added. The omega-3 fatty acid that is found in plants is called alphalinolenic acid (ALA) and it is an essential fatty acid, meaning the body cannot synthesise it so we must obtain it from our food. ALA is found in chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids that are present in oily fish, however this conversion can be inefficient. DHA is also found in algae, so there are some plant-based DHA supplements available if needed.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. See Dr Libby live during her upcoming ‘WhatAmI Supposed To Eat?’ tour throughout New Zealand. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit drlibby.com
There are calcium-fortified almond milk options for those who go vegan.