It's a challenge for the average American to adhere to the USDA's nutritional recommendations and get the necessary vitamins and minerals from natural food sources alone. Now eliminate meat or, even more extreme, all animal products like eggs and dairy, altogether. That's the difficult reality vegetarians and vegans (especially) face every day.
Some vegans are able to eat a balanced diet—consisting of whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, as well as vegetables, fruits, and unsaturated fats—and get close to the recommended allotment of vitamins and nutrients, but others have dietary deficiencies, according to new research from the University of Eastern Finland, caused by inadequate intake and unbalanced use of these food sources and a failure to use nutrient-fortified food products.
In the study, researchers analyzed the nutritional status of six men and 16 women who have been following a vegan diet for about eight years, as well as a control group comprising eight men and 11 women who followed a non-vegetarian diet. The researchers zeroed in on participants' food intake (measured from three-day food records) and concentrations of nutrients (measured by blood and urine samples) that are generally lacking in vegetarian foods—such as: vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, iodine, and essential fatty acids.
The vegan group exclusively dined on plant-based foods, and their intake of legumes, tofu, and soy flour was higher than the control group's. What's more, 91 percent of the vegan group and 78 percent of the control group were using nutrient supplements. Ninety-one percent of the vegan group took vitamin B12 supplements, 77 percent took vitamin D, and the majority (percentage not indicated) consumed calcium-fortified drinks.
Here's where the vegans were okay:
- vitamin B12 concentrations in vegan group for the most part were within the reference values, as were the values of the control group
And here's where they were lacking:
- serum vitamin D concentrations were below the reference values in a quarter of the vegan group and in just 6 percent of the control group
- essential EPA and DHA fatty acids
So, we asked life-long vegetarian Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for her recommendations on the supplements indicated above as well as her own top-choices to help vegans fill the nutrient gaps.
You probably don’t need all 10 of these supps. Sheth’s top choices are B12, D, calcium, omega 3 fats, iron, and zinc. But take a look at the additional add-ons based off the study’s findings and a vegan diet's typical inadequacies (i.e. a lack of protein). After, take an honest look at your diet and meet with an RD to assess where yours is falling short; a blood test can reveal all the holes.
Always consult your doctor or nutritionist before adding a new supplement (especially more than one) to your diet!