From the individual body to ecosystem, the potential benefits of a plant-based diet have been well-documented. It’s been touted to do everything from decrease risk of cancer to reduce your carbon footprint, and more.
That said, though, reaping the benefits of plant-based eating actually requires careful planning, says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. “Without careful food prepping and planning, going plant-based can lead to nutritional deficiencies of key nutrients, such as iron, vitamin B12, protein, and more.”
While every individual has different nutritional needs, plant-based eaters may generally want to consider taking a few specific supplements to support their overall health. Here, Dr. Axe and The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakey, R.D.N, share six supplements in particular that most plant-based eaters can benefit from—and what to know about taking them.
1. Vitamin D
Known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ (because your skin produces it from cholesterol when exposed to UVB rays), vitamin D has many roles in the body.
“Literally every tissue and every cell of your body requires vitamin D to function properly,” Axe says. It’s essential for our immune system, brain, and heart. The body also needs adequate vitamin D to produce serotonin, the body’s “feel-good chemical,” he adds.
Wondering why plant-based eaters need vitamin D, though? Well, almost everyone—regardless of their diet— needs to supplement vitamin D, suggests Axe. After all, some estimates suggest that up to 42 percent of Americans are deficient. (Axe believes the number is much higher among people who live in locations with four distinct seasons.)
Plus, the limited food-based sources of vitamin D—like eggs, fish, and beef liver—aren’t plant-diet friendly, Axe says. This means vegans and vegetarians are especially at-risk for deficiency.
To support overall physical and mental health, Axe recommends adults supplement with 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 (the form of vitamin D the body can most readily use) daily.
2. Vitamin B12
Adequate vitamin B12 is required for mental clarity, healthy neurological function, cellular communication, stress management, sound sleep, and serotonin production, among other things, says Axe. Pretty darn important, right?
Thing is, it’s most abundant in animal-based sources like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products.
As a result, “a lot of plant-based eaters come up short on B12,” says Axe. That’s exactly why he and Blakey recommend plant-based eaters talk to their healthcare providers about B12 supplementation.
Though there are a few forms of vitamin B12 on the market, Axe recommends ‘methylcobalamin,’ which is the most bioavailable (or absorbable). Aim for two milligrams or more per day and follow the label directions for suggested use.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You’ve probably heard that omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy heart and brain function. Unfortunately for plant-based eaters, though, the nutrient is most abundant in fatty fish, like salmon or sardines. That’s why the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume at least eight ounces of seafood a week.
Omega-3s are also found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and seaweed. However, if those foods don’t make regular appearances in your plant-based diet, a supplement can help. Blakely recommends a vegan, algae-based omega-3 like Ovega-3’s softgels, Ora’s Nothing Fishy Here Vegan Omega-3 Spray, or the The Vitamin Shoppe brand Omega-3 from Algae.
The National Institutes of Health has not yet determined a recommended daily allowance of omega-3s, but most vegan supplements offer 300 to 600 milligrams per serving.
Estimates suggest that nearly six percent of the population are at least mildly anemic (a.k.a. iron deficient)—and almost two percent are severely anemic. Though men and post-menopausal women only need eight milligrams daily, menstruating women need 18 milligrams and pregnant women need 27.
Red meat is one of the most iron-rich foods out there, so plant-based eaters may fall short when they cut it (and other animal products) out. Luckily, plenty of plant foods are packed with iron, including spinach, kale, tofu, and beans. If non-meat-eaters aren’t careful about regularly consuming those foods, though, they run the risk of deficiency.
Plus, “the iron in plant foods isn’t as bioavailable as the type found in animal sources,” Blakely says. This doesn’t mean you necessarily need to consume more iron. However, to improve absorption rate of plant-based iron, consume it alongside foods rich in vitamin C. (Think red peppers, oranges, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.)
If you’re experiencing symptoms of iron deficiency—such as extreme fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and/or cold hands and feet—and you’re on a plant-based diet, mention your symptoms to your doctor. They can easily test you for deficiency.
5. Plant-Based Protein Powder
For the record, many plant-based eaters get plenty of protein without a problem. After all, plant foods like beans, tofu, tempeh, and lentils all provide plenty of it, Axe says.
Still, some plant-based eaters do fall short—and that’s a problem. “Protein is essential for sustained energy, building muscle, maintaining a healthy weight, and more,” says Axe. Research also suggests that insufficient protein intake can contribute to decreased muscle mass, increased risk of bone fracture, and even increased infection risk.
For that reason, Axe and Blakey recommend plant-based eaters who don’t eat a lot of nuts, greens, and beans supplement with a plant-based protein.
An amino acid found in abundance in animal products like meat, fish, poultry, and milk, l-carnitine carries fatty acids to our cells, which then convert them into energy. Think of it like the nozzle that transports gasoline into your car.
While the body can manufacture l-carnitine out of plant-based protein, plant-based eaters tend to eat less protein than meat-eaters and thus tend to have lower levels, Blakely says.
That’s where supplements come in. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that six months of supplementation significantly increased levels of l-carnitine in muscles. (It also helped fend off increasing levels of performance-ruining lactic acid.) A second study published in Obesity Reviews even suggests that l-carnitine supplementation promotes healthy body composition.
Plant-based eaters who struggle to meet their daily protein needs may consider adding both a protein supplement and l-carnitine supplement to their nutrition stack, says Blakely. L-carnitine supplements are available in doses ranging from 500 to 2,000 milligrams.
Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook community, Eating Healthy, today!