January 12, 2021 10 min read
A vegan diet can be a great way to force yourself to monitor your diet. When you cut animal products out of your life, you’re forced to really engage with the foods you’re picking up off of the shelf. Before every purchase, you go through a little ritual with the ingredient list, and from there it’s a short jump to checking out the nutrition facts label.
Completely uprooting your diet is a great way to reacquaint yourself with the food you’re putting into your body, and if you do it right, a vegan diet is just as good as any other diet when it comes to fitness. You’re going to have to keep an eye out for the nutrients you’re accidentally neglecting, though.
If you’re reckless with your transition then it’s possible to totally gloss over some of the most important nutrients your body requires for normal operation. If you feel off, or you’re worried about taking the plunge then let’s learn about the best supplements for any vegan to take.
Vitamin B-12 is an easy one to miss. There’s a lot of folk knowledge that unwashed organic produce, mushrooms grown in soil overflowing with B-12, spirulina, chlorella, and nutritional yeast are all good sources of vitamin B-12, and that’s not totally wrong, but there are some grey areas here.
Vegetarian and vegan diets run the highest risk of vitamin B-12 deficiencies. If you’re running on the extreme end of having too little vitamin B-12 that can lead to anemia and damage to the nervous system. Go even longer without it, you start seeing things like infertility and bone and heart disease. You have to neglect your B-12 intake for a pretty long time to get to this point, but you might as well head it off at the pass.
The daily recommended intake of vitamin B-12 is 2.4 mcg per day for adults, 2.6 mcg per day during pregnancy, and 2.8 mcg per day while breastfeeding. It’s not a terribly high amount of the vitamin in the grand scheme of things, but keeping your tank topped off is a good way to grant yourself the peace of mind that comes with a full regimen of supplements.
If you do find yourself at a B-12 deficiency, studies have found that people with low levels of vitamin B12 replenished their stores after 90 days of either supplements or injections of vitamin B12, so don’t panic if your tank bottoms out.
Don’t beat yourself up over it either. Not all vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by neglecting to add it into your diet. It’s sometimes caused by a lack of an intrinsic factor. There’s a protein that is necessary for the efficient absorption of vitamin B12.
Sometimes that’s just how the cards fall, but in older people, the inability to hang onto B-12 is usually associated with an autoimmune disease known as pernicious anemia, so don’t shrug at a deficiency, but don’t let it rule your life before you try supplementing your intake in your home first.
Vitamin D is a weird one. It’s produced primarily in your skin through sunlight exposure. Most people in the world are deficient in vitamin D, so that’s probably the reason that many vegans and vegetarians are running low on vitamin D. We could all stand to get a little more of it in our lives.
The easiest way to get more vitamin D in your system is technically to spend more time outside, but as we’ll see in a moment, there are a lot of hurdles to generating vitamin D via our skin.
Most people looking to supplement the vitamin D they’re generating are able to pop a little vitamin D2 and call it a day. Although vitamin D2 is probably enough for most people, some studies suggest that vitamin D3 is more effectiveat raising blood levels of vitamin D. We suggest tinkering with the types of vitamin D you ingest and monitoring what your body receives better.
If you want to try basking in the sun for that precious vitamin content, know that if you live in areas with high pollution, wear too much sunscreen, or your skin is darker you’re going to have to spend more time outside than others. The trick is to make sure you’re taking in a healthy amount of ultraviolet rays.
Pollution, sunscreen, and melanin help to block or dissipate the effects of UV rays, so adjust your time accordingly, and no, you can’t just sit by a window, the glass blocks too of the UV rays for your skin to react to them in enough of a capacity to create vitamin D for your body.
Severe vitamin D deficiency looks like chronic tiredness, aches and pains, and a general sense of malaise. If you continue to deprive your body of vitamin D you’ll start feeling severe bone, muscle pain or weakness that may cause difficulty climbing stairs or getting up from the floor or a low chair. Your body will incur stress fractures, especially in your lower body.
Iron is the nutrient that most folks will point to when worrying about a new vegan’s diet. It’s so easy to get iron from meat because meat needs iron to live. Iron is one of the nutrients we use to make new DNA and red blood cells.
Iron is also used to carry oxygen in your red blood cells via hemoglobin, which we use iron to create. Without iron, we don’t metabolize anything, and our oxygen will just fill up aching lungs without passing that precious fuel to your muscles.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen around the body. If you’re not creating enough hemoglobin and supplying your cells with enough oxygen, this creates a lethargy in your body called anemia.
Other symptoms of an iron deficiency include:
If you let it spin way out of control you’ll end up with a weakened immune system because your blood is doing an abysmal job transporting nutrients, horrible circulation in your extremities as your body struggles to supply your body with oxygen, and you could even start grappling with horrible depression. Your body craves nutrients and stability, and when you starve it of crucial vitamins, you can risk throwing off the delicate balance in your brain.
You can get plenty of iron from supplements if you want to cut out the middle man, or you can get it from vegan sources like seed and nuts, peas, beans, and dark leafy vegetables like kale and spinach. You can help your body along in the process of absorbing iron from your food by adding vitamin C to your diet.
An iron deficiency is a pain in the butt, it can seriously lay you out if you’re not careful. Omnivores need to watch out for this as well, but if you’re not eating meat or fortified foods, it’s much easier to fall into this trap than you’d expect.
Vitamin K2 has a lot in common with most of the vitamins we need to keep our body in tiptop shape. Mainly that it’s reclusive and hard to pin down. The Initial discovery of vitamin K2 was reported relatively recently in the timeline of nutrition. It was published by a German scientific journal. They called it the “Koagulationsvitamin” which is why we now call it vitamin K. “Koagulationsvitamin” is just a little too much of a mouthful for casual conversation.
Koagulationsvitamin comes in two forms from two primary sources. The first, Vitamin K1 comes from plant foods like leafy greens. So if you’re staying up on your kale and spinach for your iron intake, then you’re probably fine on this front. The other form, vitamin K2 is found in animal foods and fermented foods, so it’s easy for omnivores to get a hold of, and if you’re not eating kimchi on the regular, you might have a little trouble as a vegan.
The thing that vitamin K is most responsible for is the regulation of when and where your body deposits calcium. You can see how that becomes a problem when you’re coming up short on vitamin K. First up, your bones.
If you’re not keeping up with the complex scaffolding that makes up the hardest parts of your body, you can bet that your body will be begging you for a good bowl of fermented mung beans in no time. Keeping up with your calcium intake is important, but if you want to make sure that calcium ends up anywhere useful, you need to make sure your body has the vitamin K it needs.
Promoting the calcification of bones isn’t the only thing shuffling calcium around does for your body. Another important function of vitamin K is preventing the calcification of blood vessels and kidneys. There is strong evidence that having a healthy amount of vitamin K in your body will help with bone head, cardiovascular health, and dental health.
Zinc is what we call an essential nutrient. That means that not only do we need it for our bodies to work well, we also can’t make it ourselves. It’s essential to survival, and if we don’t make sure we’ve got a little bit of it in our bodies at all times, you can expect some serious trouble on the horizon.
Zinc has a lot of shoes to fill, and we mean a lot. Zinc is responsible for little things like regular growth and development. It’s easy to think you don’t need as much zinc if you’re an adult, but it’s also responsible for massive things key to keeping you alive like:
It’s a mineral we can’t go without. That’s why your breakfast cereal is so often fortified with zinc. It’s not part of some crazy plan to slip metals into our diets, it’s to ensure a population of healthy people synthesizing their DNA and keeping their wounds shut. If you’re vegan and you’re not eating these fortified foods, you must be seeking out zinc in other places, even if it’s unintentionally, or your body is going to be furious soon.
We mentioned calcium briefly when we talked about vitamin K and the thankless role it serves. Imagine how miserable your body would be if you didn’t even have the calcium to cart around. We all grew up with the milk commercials, and we know how important to the strength of your bones calcium is.
Calcium is another one of those essential nutrients. We’re not making a single atom of the stuff. All of the calcium in your body has been carefully drawn out of your food and meticulously laid into place like a fervent brick layer creating a wall of ivory and meat.
Milk is the obvious choice for calcium intake, but where else have you been harvesting it over all these years? Calcium is everywhere if you know where to look for it, and you don’t have to drink it to ingest it.
You can find calcium in dark green veggies like kale, spinach, and broccoli. If you’re a fan of white bean chili, well guess what, you’re also a fan of calcium. The often-maligned sardines are full of the stuff, and fortified grains have calcium added back into them after being processed for your breads and cereals. Our favorite unsung calcium source is orange juice.
If your calcium account is running empty, you’ll be facing a whole host of problems. You’ll literally become a brittle mess without it. Osteoporosis is no joke, and you don’t want to be trying to patch your bones back together in your twilight years. You’ve most likely dodged the early development bullet, most folks are great about loading their kids up with calcium-rich foods when they’re young. Kids love breaking themselves and having the nutrients to make quick repairs makes raising them a lot less nerve-wracking.
Iodine is probably most well known for being a sneaky allergen in doctor’s offices. They love to use the stuff during routine checkups, but what you might not know is how important iodine is to the regular operation of your body. That’s right, we’ve discovered another essential mineral. Iodine is another supplement we could all use more of. Nearly a third of the entire human population is at risk for an iodine deficiency.
In the United States, folks are in ample supply of the stuff, but pregnant women, vegetarians and vegans, and countries with low iodine supplies in their soil like New Zealand, South and Southeastern Asia, and Europe, all tend to have trouble getting iodine into their diet.
Iodine deficiency can be a serious problem. An early symptom is swelling of the neck. The front and back of your next will swell, this is a goiter and it happens when your thyroid starts growing too large. Your thyroid swelling is like when your car overheats. It’s working too hard to make up for the lack of iodine in your body, and can’t keep up with the demands of your body. You’re unable to create enough thyroid hormones, and suddenly things start spiraling out of control.
Iodine is responsible for less glamorous things than calcium and it’s famous work on building all of your bones. Iodine is used in your thyroid to make thyroid hormones. These are what you use to help control growth in your body, repaired damages cells, and run a regular and healthy metabolism.
If you’re feeling sluggish, you may want to monitor your iodine levels. Iodine is used in your body to generate energy through your metabolism, and if you’re not getting enough of it you’ll be spending energy to make energy and you won’t be making enough energy to make that energy. It all becomes a tangled mess that ends with you being tired and swelling in places you don’t want to be swelling.
Going vegan is great. It’ll cut down on emissions, if you’re big on the well-being of animals, it’ll keep those bad boys alive, and you can really reconnect with your nutrition in a way you may have drifted away from accidentally.
It does however come with a couple of incidental pitfalls, just like any other diet change. Your body may have been cobbling together vitamins and minerals from a multitude of different sources, and switching that up without making sure you paper over the holes you may have made by accident is a good way to wind up on your ass.
Keep up with a light routine of supplements or just pick your foods carefully each week, and you should be fine going forward, but if you feel some strange chronic muck bubbling up from deep within you, take a minute to assess and add what you need to back into your diet.