Having a plant-based diet means that at some point, pretty much all of us have had to answer the question, ‘But where do you get your protein?’ If you haven’t, lucky you. But if you have, you’ll have done your homework and know, and presumably it is now common knowledge, that you can get protein from plant-based sources (as well as dairy and eggs, if those are also a part of your diet). Most of us are probably quite good at ensuring these nutrients are included as part of a daily diet and otherwise attempt to eat a varied, nutrient-rich diet full of whole, unprocessed foods (most of the time). But are there any nutrients should be concerned that we many need to supplement? And how best to ensure we get these nutrients?
Depending on who you consult, the advice varies. Some camps argue that a balanced diet is enough, as you can get everything you need from the food you eat. Others argue that it just isn’t possible to get all of the most essential nutrients and in sufficient quantities from what we eat so supplementing in advisable. The decision to supplement is made even more complex by our individual biology, age and our body’s ability to take up, covert and use nutrients. So the decision to supplement is very much an individual one, influenced by personal choice, diet and lifestyle, and by listening to your body and consulting the appropriate professionals should you need. But if you are considering supplementing or want to know which nutrients you need to be vigilant about, here’s a list of 7 important ones to consider.
B12 deficiency isn’t solely the preserve of those on a plant-based diet and can lead to anemia and neurological issues. So ensuring that you have sufficient B12 levels is important. B12 can be found unwashed organic produce, mushrooms (grown in B12-rich soil), nori, spirulina, chlorella, fortified nutritional yeast and fermented foods.
Commonly found in oily fish, which is obviously a no-go for plant-based eaters, omega-3s play a role in eye and brain health as well as preventing inflammation. While plant-based eaters tend to get some of their essential omega-3s from flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp, and soy, but may need to include things such as algae oil to ensure that they are also getting enough of the long-chain omega-3s as your body’s ability to make these can vary drastically.
Living in England, especially in the winter, means that we often cannot produce enough Vitamin D from sunlight and unfortunately there are not many plant-based sources of Vitamin D other than mushrooms, fortified food products such as milks and fermented foods. If you are worried about Vitamin D levels, have them tested and if they are low you might consider taking a D2 or D3 supplement.
Is crucial for healthy thyroid function and regulation of your metabolism. Vegans are more likely to be at risk of iodine deficiency compared to vegetarians as the levels contained in plants vary based on the iodine content of the soil. Eating seaweed and pure salt are great for taking in iodine and if levels are still problematic an iodine supplement might be what you need.
Zinc is a mineral crucial for immune and metabolic functioning and can be found in whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, sprouted seeds/nuts/legumes/pulses. Absorption of zinc is compromised by the phytates present in grains, seeds, etc, and as a result, soaking and sprouting these is important to ensure adequate absorption. Consuming fermented foods is also reported to help increase zinc absorption.
Iron is one nutrient that many of us plant-based folk have struggled with and have found the effects to be noticeable. Low iron levels can cause fatigue and decreased immune function as well as lead to anemia. While heme iron is only found in animal products, non-heme iron is found in plants. Heme iron is more easily absorbed, but non-heme iron absorption can be boosted by eating iron-rich foods such as cruciferous veg, nuts and seeds with a source of Vitamin C and avoiding drinking tea or coffee with these meals.
Noted for being essential for bones and teeth, calcium is also essential for our muscles, nervous system and heart. Heavy hitters in terms of plant-based sources of calcium includes dark leafy greens and fortified milks. Before making the decision to supplement, if you are not meeting the recommended requirements, consult the growing body of research on calcium requirements for those on plant-based diets, as some suggest we need less than meat eaters.
The long of the short of it is, yes, a plant-based diet is rich in nutrients, but does need to be carefully curated in order to ensure we cover all of our nutritional bases. If you do think that your diet isn’t sufficient for supporting your nutritional needs, get the necessary advice and assurance you need to make an informed decision. And where possible, choose only plant-based supplements made from organic sources.