When people find out I’m vegan, they’re often concerned about my health. “Where do you get your protein?” is a common question (I’ve answered it in this post). Iron, calcium and B12 are other things people worry about too. I’m going to address these concerns (and throw in a bit about vitamin D too).
I’m not a medical professional, but I study nutrition and I’ve completed the Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate taught by Dr. T. Colin Campbell at Cornell and I’m going to share a bit about what I’ve learned about supplements and vitamins for vegans.
The good news is that we can get all the nutrients we need from plants. Ditching meat, eggs and dairy is ethical and it’s a way to avoid cholesterol and excess fat and protein (too much protein is not healthy). Animal products lack fiber and are missing a host of other nutrients–as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants!
The course I took emphasized a whole food, plant-based diet. Coke and Oreos are vegan, but not good for us! When we eat a variety of whole foods, we get a variety of nutrients. Our bodies utilize nutrients over time and it’s healthy to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and beans.
Vitamin B12 – We need B12 so our brains and nervous systems work properly. It helps build blood and regulate our metabolisms. B12 is produced by microorganisms (it comes from bacteria, not meat). Animals who eat foods from the earth consume dirt and the B12 stays in their intestines. In the past, we ate food with a bit of soil on it too and got our B12 the same way animals do. Today, we’re cleaner (and soil is often depleted of nutrients), making B12 not just “a vegan problem.”
A simple blood test can determine your B12 levels. Fortified soy and almond milks contain it, but you can also take a supplement. Deva makes vegan vitamins (meaning vitamins for vegans but also vitamins free of animal ingredients and gel caps made from gelatin).
Vitamin D – This vitamin isn’t truly a vitamin (it acts more like a hormone and helps us absorb calcium). We can make our own just by getting some sun. It’s often added to dairy, but milk normally doesn’t have vitamin D. It’s in fortified soy and almond milks too. The best way to get vitamin D is to get a bit of sun exposure. Not too much, course! Get your levels checked and supplement if you’re low (a lot of people in the northern hemisphere are).
Calcium – Calcium builds strong bones and helps our bodies absorb vitamin D. Many people think about milk when they think of calcium, but milk and other animal proteins create an acidic environment in our blood. Our bodies use bone calcium to neutralize the acidity and make blood more alkaline. When we get rid of the excess protein, we lose calcium. Animal proteins also block vitamin D which, in turn, promote cancers. Yikes! So where should we get calcium? Check out this chart from Vegan Street:
Iron – Iron is also important. Among other functions, it carries oxygen to the lungs. Meat has iron, but fortunately so do a lot of plants. Pro tip: eat iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C. The vitamin C aids in iron absorption. Tomatoes and spinach on a pizza, anyone? Here’s another great image from Vegan Street:
Thoughts about supplements
One of my nutrition classes was presented by Dr. Matt Lederman. He said we’re designed to get nutrients from food. Supplements aren’t food. They don’t cure disease, and we don’t need then unless we have a deficiency. The real reason people are sick is because they’re poisoning themselves with fat, cholesterol and protein and by eating foods that are lacking in nutrients. Doctors don’t know exactly how much of each nutrient we need, but our bodies do. Poor health, Dr. Lederman said, is a fruit, grain and vegetable deficiency.
The best thing we can do is eat a variety of whole foods from plants. With the exception of B12, and (if you’re in a northern clime) vitamin D, we can follow Hippocrates’ advice:
Let food be your medicine and medicine your food.