Whole food plant-based diets are coming to the forefront in popularity for all the noted health benefits and improvements they can have related to chronic disease, but are you getting everything you need if you choose to follow a vegan diet? Below we provide the top three vitamins/minerals to consider supplementing if following a vegan diet.
Also known as Cobalamin, Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, brain and nerve function, and the production of DNA. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, not by animals or plants. Therefore, animal products contain B12 because they accumulate the bacteria throughout their lifespan. B12 is often supplemented to livestock in their feed or they are exposed to B12 in things like manure or the soil they graze on. Vitamin B12 has become limited in availability in most plant foods due to the use of pesticides and antibacterial farming practices making it most commonly found in fortified foods. Crystalline, the form of B12 found used in fortified foods, is readily absorbed by our bodies versus the protein-bound form that is present in animal proteins.
Although vegans are at higher risk for deficiency, it is possible to get your needs met with diet if you are aware of what foods to include. B12 is best absorbed in small doses so frequently including fortified foods is best for meeting needs. If you are choosing to avoid animal products in your diet, the most common sources of Vitamin B12 are foods such as fortified alternative dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt, etc), fortified breakfast cereals, and fortified nutritional yeast.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is connected to processes including immune function, mood, memory, and muscle function. It is also responsible for assisting in the absorption of calcium and phosphorous which is key for building and maintaining bone health. Similar to B12, very few foods are natural sources of Vitamin D, requiring fortification or supplementation to meet nutrition needs. The best and most common source of Vitamin D is direct exposure to sunlight, however during winter months this can be challenging. Foods that are naturally high in Vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and swordfish. In addition many milk products (alternative included) are fortified with Vitamin D. Deficiency is common in both vegans and omnivores and therefore especially during the winter months, people should consider monitoring their levels closely to determine if supplementation is needed.
Iron is an important component of red blood cell production and is used in creating DNA and transferring oxygen in our blood. It is a mineral that is found in two different types in our food – heme iron is animal derived and non-heme iron is plant derived. Although heme iron is more readily absorbed, when following a vegan diet you can easily meet the RDA by including the following non-heme iron foods: cruciferous vegetables, beans/lentils, tofu, peas, spinach, dried fruits, or nuts/seeds. Also you can greatly improve the absorption of non-heme iron with the addition of Vitamin C foods. Consuming things like tomatoes, citrus fruit, or strawberries can make a huge difference in the amount of non-heme iron absorbed.