More people than ever before are choosing to follow a meat-free diet, whether that is as a vegan or a vegetarian. In addition, there is also a wider range of nutritional supplements aimed at non-meat eaters than ever before. But do vegans and vegetarians actually need to take supplements?
And if so, which supplements are the best? We asked Chris Smith, scientist and co-founder of Vegetology, to talk us through the supplements that are available on the market, what to look out for and why not all Vegan and Vegetarian supplements are actually of benefit to your body.
Vegans vs Vegetarians
Terms like vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, non-meat eater, far from being a niche nutritional life choice, have become mainstream lifestyle choices. We thought it was a good start to define vegans and vegetarians before we get started.
A vegetarian diet has no meat of any kind but will include dairy products, such as eggs and cheese.
A vegan diet doesn’t only avoid all eat meat but also excludes all dairy products because they consider them to be animal derivatives. This extends to eggs and honey, etc.
Thankfully gone are the days when people saw choosing to be a vegan or vegetarian as a restrictive diet choice. On the whole, both options can accommodate varied diets that are full of nutrients.
Are There Any Nutritional Gaps in Vegan and Vegetarian Diets?
It’s important to understand that any diet can have nutritional gaps if it’s not balanced and varied. If you eat meat, but only eat hamburgers and chips at every meal, you won’t be getting all of your nutrients either! But on the whole, vegan and vegetarian balanced diets tend to be incredibly healthy. That said, there are a few groups of nutrients that you miss out on, or you don’t get enough of, which could be cause for concern. This includes nutrients such as minerals and trace elements including calcium, iron, iodine, selenium, and zinc. Protein is a macronutrient that also needs consideration, as well as Omega-3 and vitamins B-12 and D-3.
How We Get Enough Calcium when Following a Plant-Based Diet
Calcium is found in numerous foods such as spinach, but not always in the form
that the body can absorb. A good vegetarian source of calcium is rocket or kale. Getting enough calcium can be a challenge – it’s always good to talk through any concerns with your doctor, if you feel you aren’t getting enough of any nutrient in your diet.
How We Get Enough Iron Following a Plant-Based Diet
While iron is found in vegetables like broccoli and spinach, it’s important to understand how it gets absorbed effectively into the body. Iron needs Vitamin C-rich foods to enhance absorption. Good vegetarian sources of iron are things like leafy greens, soya and dark chocolate. Vitamin C, can be found in oranges and apples. Combining the two nutrients is very important, and making sure you are getting enough of both in your daily diet.
How We Get Enough Iodine Following a Plant-Based Diet
Iodine isn’t necessarily something you’d think of if you were asked to list essential nutrients. But iodine is essential for thyroid function, it’s also a nutrient you need in the right balance – too much or too little can cause problems in the body. What about seaweed? That’s source of iodine isn’t it? Yes, but seaweed can also contain mercury and other pollutants from the sea. That’s why vegans and vegetarians tend to take an iodine supplement to ensure the right levels in the body.
How We Get Enough Selenium Following a Plant-Based Diet
Selenium is found in nuts, such as Brazil nuts. It’s important to check how much selenium the products you’re consuming actually contain. Depending on where they are grown, the levels will vary, so checking is key to getting enough selenium.
How We Get Enough Zinc Following a Plant-Based Diet
Zinc is another nutrient found in many vegetarian and vegan dishes, grains, nuts, seed and tofu. However, the Institute of Medicine always recommends that vegans and vegetarians should also supplement with zinc. This is because even though zinc is found in many plants, a great deal of foods also contain something called phytate, which can block zinc absorption. In other words, even though you can be getting plenty of zinc from your diet, other parts of your diet could actually be blocking it getting absorbed.
How We Get Enough Protein Following a Plant-Based Diet
A lot of meats are rich in protein, so it makes sense that a meat-free diet needs to replace that protein. Protein is plentiful in grains and pulses. A really important point about proteins is to check the quality and the composition, for essential amino acids. Amino acids are very important to the body, hence being called essential. Some basic proteins don’t contain many or any amino acids, so they’re not as ideal. It’s always good to check that you’re getting a high quality protein, or consider supplementing with a protein powder. Soya, pea, hemp and buckwheat are really good high protein foods that are also rich in essential amino acids.
How We Get Enough Omega-3 Following a Plant-Based Diet
Omega-3 is known as an essential fatty acid, and there’s a very good reason for that! Omega-3 is essential for general health. The eyes, brain and heart all require Omega-3 to function optimally. It’s essential for brain cell regeneration, cognitive function, behaviour, attentiveness, reducing inflammation and inflammatory ailments, general mood improvement, reducing anxiety, symptoms of depression, joint care and pregnancy. The problem is that Omega-3 deficiency is rife in the general population including vegans and vegetarians, so it’s really important to get enough.
Why are vegans and vegetarians not getting enough Omega-3? Chris explains:
“One of the issues here is some of the most famous sources of vegetarian Omega-3 are things like flax, chia, and other seeds. The problem is that they contain Omega-3 in the form of ALA, which is alpha-linolenic acid, an inactive form of Omega-3. The body needs to convert that into active forms to be used. The problem is that conversion rate is really, really low – 5% maximum. When you’re looking for an Omega-3 supplement, you need to be looking for Omega-3 DHA and EPA, the active forms traditionally found in fish oil.”
How We Get Enough Vitamin B12 Following a Plant-Based Diet
Vitamin B12 is needed by everybody, but it’s a real problem for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, as there isn’t a source of it in those diets. Why do we need it? Well, it’s vital for healthy blood cells, supporting the nervous and digestive systems, and for energy. It’s what the body needs to convert carbohydrate into glucose, and therefore the energy for our bodies to use. Being deficient in Vitamin B12 can cause anemia, nerve damage, heart diseases, problems conceiving or during pregnancy, and many other ailments. The common advice for vegans and vegetarians is get a Vitamin B12 supplement.
How We Get Enough Vitamin D Following a Plant-Based Diet
Vitamin D is essential for maintaining healthy bones because it helps us absorb and retain calcium, for healthy teeth, it’s important for muscle function, for keeping the heart and cardiovascular systems
working, brain development, immune system, and we could go on. But… and it’s a big but… Public Health England tells us that most of us aren’t getting enough Vitamin D in the UK because of a lack of sunlight throughout the year. Now it is found in some food sources, but when it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets, the key thing is the type of Vitamin D in your diet. Chris explains:
“We hear about Vitamin D2 and D3. Now, Vitamin D3 traditionally is an animal-source vitamin D, so that’s why it’s not suitable for vegans or vegetarians. The problem is that Vitamin D2 is very different to Vitamin D3. The easiest way to explain it is that Vitamin D2 is an analogue of Vitamin D, which means when it goes into the body it needs to be converted to behave like Vitamin D. Some data published suggested that Vitamin D2 is nearly 90% less effective than Vitamin D3. Thankfully there is now a source of vitamin D3 that is 100% plant source.
So, do Vegans and Vegetarians Really Need Nutritional Supplements?
The verdict from scientist Chris Smith is an overwhelming yes. And that’s not just Chris’ opinion, the Vegan Society and Vegetarian Society also suggest taking supplements to ensure you get all the nutrients you need following a plant-based diet. That’s not to say those diets aren’t healthy – they are actually super healthy and great for the body – but there are some nutrients you cannot get following those diets.
What To Check For In A Supplement for Vegans and Vegetarians
Getting the right supplements is about making sure you are getting the nutrients you need in the right form, quantity and quality. Here’s a quick checklist:
- The Right Form - choose supplements that are in the most effective form of the ingredient your body needs – Vitamin D3 and Omega-3 DHA and EPA are two such examples
- Quantity – check the contents of the supplement – how much of your daily allowance are you really getting in a supplement?
- Quality – choose supplements that have been tested and thoroughly researched for the most effective way to store and combine ingredients. Some multivitamin formulas can actually cancel out the effects of each other
- Vegan Society and Vegetarian Society approved – this is a badge of honour – choose supplements that have been approved by these societies to ensure quality and animal free products
Download Our Free Guide
For more advice on what supplements you may need, download our free guide – The Non-Meat Eaters Guide to Supplements to find out more.