The vitamin supplement industry is huge, but mostly unnecessary: A plant-based whole foods diet will provide almost all the vitamins your body requires for optimal functioning.
However, there are a few exceptions: Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and DHA (Omega 3 EFA) are extremely difficult to obtain from food, so supplementing these may be a good idea. Read on to learn why and a few basic guidelines.
Vitamin B12 is largely known as a supplement for vegans, and it’s true that vegans do need it. However, people who eat omnivore diets should also consider adding B12, as research has shown even their levels are low. Additionally, vitamin B12 is recommended for anyone over age 50.
Interestingly, in one study, the early signs of dementia in elderly people went away with vitamin B12 supplementation.
There are two types of vitamin B12:
- Cynocobalamin – this is the recommended form. Take 1,000 mcg 2-3 times per week.
- Methylcobalamin – more commonly found, but requires daily intake of 1,000 mcg per day.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin – the fallacy originated as a marketing ploy when the agriculture industry began fortifying milk with this hormone to make more milk sales, and the name stuck. Fortunately, you don’t need to drink milk to get the benefits of this hormone – your body can make it.
The human body will create its own “vitamin D” when UV B sun rays interact with the skin – about ten minutes of sunlight is all it needs. However, that can be challenging during winter seasons when outdoor temperatures are cold and days are dark. People who are not getting enough exposure to sunlight might want to consider a vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter, when supplementation may also decrease flu risk.
Here are the types of vitamin D:
- Vitamin D2 – synthetic and not recommended.
- Vitamin D3 – this is the recommended form, although it usually comes from an animal source (lanolin derived from sheep’s wool). Mushrooms when exposed to UV light have also been found to generate vitamin B12, so that may be a potential vegan source. Take 1,000 IU daily, and not more than 4,000 IU. Excess amounts of vitamin D, such as 10,000 IU, are toxic to the body.
- Everyone’s favorite, cod liver oil is the only other known food source of vitamin D.
Omega-3 Long-Chain Essential Fatty Acids (DHA)
Also known as “good fats”, Omega-3s are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA), meaning they must be obtained from food, a little bit every day. Short-chain (ALA) Omega-3s are fairly easy to get from food sources: you can find them in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and trace amounts in beans, broccoli, and greens.
Long-chain (DHA) Omega-3s are most commonly found in deep ocean fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna – however, these come with a risk of mercury poisoning, so they should be avoided. With the mercury in tuna, it’s recommended to eat no more than one can every 44 days.
So where can you find a safe source of DHA? The same place the fish get it from: algae. Look for an algae-based supplement, although that may not be necessary if you are eating flax seeds, which contain short-chain Omega-3s the body can convert into long-chain Omega-3s.
Folic acid is the synethic form of folate (vitamin B9), which is necessary for normal development of a baby during the first month of pregnancy. If a woman is eating a plant-based whole foods diet before becoming pregnant, she is likely getting enough folate to prevent birth defects.
However, many pediatricians will not work with a pregnant woman unless she supplements with folic acid, because the risk of birth defects (and getting sued) is too high in women who do not get adequate folate intake due to eating a mostly junk food diet.
Folic acid does work for the baby, but it also increases risk of breast cancer in the mother. It is far better to get the vitamin from its natural food sources by eating a healthy diet every day.
You Can (and Should) Get Most of Your Vitamins from Food
The 3-4 in the list above are the only vitamins that may require supplementation. The rest of them you will get easily from foods in your healthy diet:
- Vitamin A – orange, red and green vegetables (yes, vitamins are the colors in our food! Pretty neat. 🙂
- Vitamin B complex – cruciferous vegetables,whole grains, beans
- Vitamin C – citrus, mini sweet peppers, leafy greens, berries
- Vitamin E – nuts, seeds, and leafy greens
- Vitamin K – leafy greens
- Choline – cruciferous vegetables, nuts, whole grains
If you want to see detailed information about food sources and amounts, check out nutritiondata.self, veganhealth.org, or the USDA Food Composition Database.
The Dangers of Supplementation
A healthy diet really is the best way to get your vitamins, for many reasons:
- Taking supplements can enable eating an unhealthy diet – people might consume pizza and beer regularly and think they’re okay because they’re taking a multivitamin. The truth is, there is no magic pill or quick fix for good health.
- Supplements can be contaminated in the manufacturing process, or they can be mislabeled. The supplement industry is largely unregulated in China and the United States, though Consumer Reports and Consumer Labs can help with independent testing. European supplements are more regulated and may be safer.
- Vitamins can be harmful at high doses. It’s much safer to get them through foods, which contain only trace amounts, and avoid the risk of toxic overdose.