I wanted to talk to you today about a common question people ask when moving to a plant-based diet – what do I need to supplement? We’ve become so accustomed to the standard American diet telling us all the time that we must have dairy for calcium, and that protein comes from animals, that the idea of eliminating these from the diet can cause concern. Please rest assured that those ideas you’ve spent a lifetime hearing are nothing more than propaganda, and you will get every bit of the nutrients you need – both macro and micro – from a plant-based diet.
There are a couple of exceptions to the rule, and those exceptions apply to everyone, regardless of diet, not just people who are meat- and dairy-free. Those exceptions are Vitamins B12 and D.
What is Vitamin B12? Rather than a vitamin, this is actually a bacteria from the soil that historically we have consumed through eating plants and drinking water. In our modern world, however, we are treating our soil with herbicides and pesticides that have largely wiped out the bacteria responsible for B12. We are also treating our water supply to eliminate disease-causing bacteria. No one would argue that we should not be treating our water as it has made things much safer for human life – however that is one more source of B12 that has been eliminated.
Why is it so common for vegans and vegetarians to be recommended B12, but not meat eaters? Studies have actually shown that everyone, meat-eaters included, is not getting the amount of B12 they really need. However, meat eaters do get more of it than non-meat eaters because the meat they are eating has been fortified with it. The grain fed to livestock contains B12, and some animals are even injected with it just before slaughter. It could be argued that vegetable farmers could fortify their soil with B12 as well to get it into their crop, but for reasons unknown this is simply not the process .
Therefore, supplementing B12 is important, especially for those not eating meat. How much do we need? Actually, not all that much. The RDA of B12 for adults is only 2.4 mcg, and most supplements on the market are 1,000 mcg or more. Even if we only absorbed a tenth of the vitamin, it would still be significantly more than we need. For this reason, I personally take a 500 mcg tablet 2-3 times per week. There is no need for B12 to be a daily vitamin.
Before I move on to Vitamin D, I thought I’d quickly cover why we need B12. B12 is vital to the body’s ability to make DNA, which means it is important for the proper function of every cell in our bodies. There is also a form of anemia that can arise from insufficient B12, as the bacteria also plays an integral role in blood health.
Now for vitamin D. It is fairly commonly known that Vitamin D serves a big role in the absorption of calcium, which we need for the health of our skeletal system and teeth. Without it, we become brittle and breakable, and at risk for osteoporosis. Calcium itself comes from plants, in particular leafy green plants more than any others. We are told that we need to consume cow’s milk in order to get sufficient calcium, and that is utter (pun intended) nonsense! The cows themselves get their calcium from the same place that every single other living creature gets it – from eating plants! We can cut out the middle-cow and just consume the plants as well.
In fact, calcium that comes from dairy is harder for the body to absorb at a rate of only 50% – compared to a rate of about 75% for plant calcium. Further evidence to the fact that we should be getting our calcium from spinach, not cheese, milk and yogurt. Cow’s milk also creates an inflammatory response in the body because it creates an acid environment, which the body then needs to draw calcium from the bones to neutralize, thus actually making the bones weaker by consuming cow’s milk, rather than stronger as we’ve been told.
Vitamin D helps with all calcium absorption, and the easiest and most direct source of Vitamin D is the sun. Once upon a time, in early human existence, we were an equatorial species without modern conveniences such as sunscreen, houses, or sweaters and leggings! We existed in warm climates where the sun was plentiful, and we spent plenty of time in it. Since then we have migrated all over the world and are now inhabiting colder climates where, for 4-9 months of the year depending on where we live, many of us are fully clothed and huddling indoors.
During the summer, when we are outdoors more and wearing fewer clothes, we are wearing loads of sunscreen and hats, and sitting under umbrellas and tents to lessen the risk of skin cancer – again, a great thing to do now that we know the risks of too much sun! But it does cut back on the amount of Vitamin D we are getting. Even when spending time outdoors in the summer, it is estimated that a majority of people are still a little short on the vitamin. To find out for sure whether you need to supplement, you can see your doctor for a quick blood panel to determine this.
How much do we need? The minimum RDA is 600 IU, but 1,000 – 2,000 is the preferred dose. I have a 1,000 IU supplement that I take daily in the summer, and 2,000 IU in the winter. Sometimes I will actually only supplement every other day in the summer when I get a chance to get outside regularly. 10-20 minutes in the sun is supposed to be enough to generate a good amount of Vitamin D production, and is also long enough to be outside without clothing or sunscreen and still be safe. So I will lay on a blanket outside in my bathing suit on my lunch break most days for 20 minutes. This allows me to supplement less.
Again, to determine your exact Vitamin D needs, a blood test is best. But it can’t hurt to take at least a 1,000 IU supplement if you’d rather not go to the trouble of a doctor visit and lab costs.
It is important when selecting a supplement to look for a source that is vegan, and this goes for both Vitamins B12 and D. Each are frequently derived from animal sources, which is something you want to avoid if you are plant-based, or simply wish to be as healthy as you can be.
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions about supplementing, please leave a comment below and I will get you an answer.