One of the most asked questions I receive on this blog: Do I need to take supplements or vitamins?? Even if I eat a ______ diet.
The short answer, yes. So lets talks more about this….
We work so damn hard hard to make the best food choices –and now we have to worry about vitamins too!
The fact is, we do need to supplement with vitamins. It’s kind critical, actually.
We also have to avoid supplementing other vitamins because they can do way more harm than good.
Vitmains and supplements are a MULTI-BILLION $$$ industry. There’s a lot of snake oil being sold out there–but there is also a legitimate need to supplement any diet for optimum health. There’s also that pesky little fact that people aren’t carbon copies of each other. Some of us need more of certain nutrients than others.
& yes, it all seems very confusing, confounding and downright murky and I demand real, concrete answers–how about you?
Well, now you’ve got them!
Yes! You Need to Take Supplements!
When you look at those bright, fresh, nutrient-packed veggies up there, doesn’t it just make you wonder: Why?
Why do we need to take anything else at all, when sometimes us vegans are eating about 2 pounds of produce a day?
If you thought you could get out of taking vitamins by eating a plant-based, no oil, low salt, un-processed diet, or a “clean diet”, think again…
YOUR BODY CAN’T DO IT ALL
Even running on all cylinders, feeding your body only the most nutrient-packed produce and foregoing sugar, meat, salt and processed foods, there are vitamins your body needs daily.
If our bodies could create everything we needed on our own, we wouldn’t have to eat–which, while saving us a lot of time and money, would make life pretty boring and (eerily enough) would make us a lot like walking trees!
The point is, that by increasing the volume and variety of vegetables, you are already getting optimal levels of nutrients in the best possible way. I’m talking waaay more than the average human too!
Let’s stop for a second and do a very quick micronutrient review:
Micronutrients do not contain calories. They are the vitamins, minerals, fibers and phytochemicals that give us critical chemical factors for life, disease prevention, super immunity and even help to reverse the ageing process.
Yup, micronutrients are more beneficial to you than fat, carbs and protein alone.
Now, according to Dr. Fuhrman’s The End of Dieting, here’s what vitamins are:
Vitamins are organic compounds required by animals that cannot be synthesized by the body but are nevertheless necessary for normal function.
Vitamins come in two varieties: (1) fat-soluable or (2) water-soluble.
Of the 13 vitamins we know of today, 4 are fat-soluable and 9 are water soluable.
But, why does this even matter?
Our bodies have a lot more trouble storing water-soluable vitamins and so we need a more consistent intake of them.
Water-soluable vitamins dissolve easily in water and are readily excreted from the body. These include the eight B vitamins and vitamin C.
Minerals are even more tricky!
Our bodies require at least 16 minerals, but their range of optimum benefit is narrow and varies from person to person.
WHAT YOU CAN’T GET FROM PLANTS ALONE
Every vegan worth her weight in nutritional yeast knows that there are some critical nutrients you just can’t get from plants alone.
According to Dr. Fuhrman’s The End of Dieting, these are:
Vitamin B12, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D (although many, many die-hard meat-eaters don’t get enough vitamin D either). Iodine and zinc can also be suboptimal (Iodine due to salt restriction and zinc because of binding by the phyytates in plants).
Other than those 5 nutrients, animal products don’t provide anything that you can’t get in a safer package–by eating plant foods.
Sure, you may justify eating meat, eggs, fish and dairy because of these 5 nutrients, but you’d be doing your health a massive disservice since animal products are conclusively linked to elevated cancer and cardiovascular disease.
If reading Dr. Fuhrman’s Eat to Live, Super Immunity and The End of Dieting isn’t enough, check out this article by The Guardian: “Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful as smoking”
Here’s What You Need to Avoid
Dr. Fuhrman has identified these vitamins and minerals as harmful:
- vitamin A (acetyl and retinyl palmitate)
- folic acid
- vitamin E
- iron (for men and postmenopausal women)
Yes, yes, I know! If you pick up any multivitamin on the market you are going to see these nutrients listed in there!
In The End of Dieting, Dr. Fuhrman acknowedges that “[m]ultivitamins are most often a combination of harmful substances and potentially helpful substances.”
And he strongly advises against taking standard multivitamins that contain these ingredients.
Beta-carotene is one of 600 carotenoids. Carotenoids are found in yellow, orange and red-pigmented fruits in veggies.
When eaten naturally, the antioxidants in carotenoids help immune function and vision and defend us against oxidative damage (which fights chronic disease and premature aging).
Yup, carotenoids are gifts from nature that you want in your diet! And with a whole food plant based lifestyle you are going to eat lots of them!
Here’s the problem, studies have found that supplementing with beta-carotene is associated with an increased risk of cancer and premature death.
Um, that’s kinda the total opposite of our goals, right?
Dr. Fuhrman goes on to point out that “[i]t’s possible for nutrients in isolation (in supplemental form) and at high doses to act differently in the body than when they are derived from foods and naturally balanced with other nutrients.”
One theory is that beta-carotene from supplements could interfere with the absorption of other anticancer cartenoids, like lutein and lycopene.
So, get your beta-carotene the way nature intended–in your food, and stay away from supplementing this nutrient.
Dr. Fuhrman identifies vitamin A as “likely the most dangerous supplement of all.”
In The End of Dieting, he goes on to explain that “[a] meta-analysis of many studies of anti-oxidant vitamin supplementation found that vitamin A supplements were associated with a 16 percent increased risk of death [followed by] beta-carotene [with] a 7 percent increase.”
Beta-carotene is a provitamin A carotenoid, which means that it’s converted to vitamin A in the body.
So, beta-carotene is safer than vitamin A, but both should be avoided in supplement form.
You are going to be getting so much beta-carotene (and vitamin A) from the colorful fruits and veggies you’ll be eating on this diet regularly, you are not going to be deficient–so why increase your risk of death?
Doesn’t that just defeat the purpose of “eating to live?”
Of all the dangerous vitamins Dr. Fuhrman warns against, this was the most surprising!
Taking folic acid is ingrained into your head as an expectant mother, so why, oh why should it be avoided at all costs?
The short answer is: it’s not natural.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate (a member of those water-soluable B vitamins we mentioned earlier). Folic acid has a completely different chemical structure than natural folate.
What does folate do for you?
- essential for several chemical reactions related to DNA production (methylation & repair mechanisms)
- important for normal fetal development
- supports a normal immune function to fight against cancer
- protecting against neural tube defects in developing babies
The problem is we don’t need lab-made, synthetic folic acid we need food-based, natural folate.
Incidentially, folate “is found abundantly in natural food[s], particularly green vegetables and beans.”
In The End of Dieting, Dr. Fuhrman goes on to explain how dangerous folic acid really is:
Folic acid is about twice as absorbable as natural folate, and once absorbed it must be modified before it can act as folate. Your body can convert only so much folic acid into folate, so too much folic acid enters the blood and tissues as unmodified folic acid. Exactly what unmodified folic acid does in the body is unclear, but there is evidence that it can disrupt normal folate metabolism and promote cancer growth. Taking synthetic folic acid has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.
I don’t know about you, but I’m working too damn hard eating to prolong my life to unwittingly supplement folic acid and end up increasing my risk of cancer. No thanks, I’ll pass on the folic acid, thank you very much!
By you eating a whole food plant based diet you will be getting plenty of natural folate because it’s abundant in green veggies, beans and other plant foods. And higher consumption of natural food folate helps to prevent those very cancers folic acid can cause!
Check out this short 2 minute video by Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org, where the actual studies finding folic acid harmful are discussed.
If you are adopting a whole food plant based lifestyle you don’t need to supplement with folic acid. And if you are an expectant mother, concentrate on eating plenty of beans and greens before and during pregnancy.
Folic acid is a weak and harmful substitute for the real thing.
Bottom line: Get your vitamin E from nuts and seeds.
Vitamin E contains a number of similar fat-soluable compounds that are found primarily in nuts and seeds (like almonds, hazlenuts and sunflower seeds).
Those vitamin E fragments coupled with other healthful compounds, result in health benefits that you just can’t get from a vitamin E supplement.
A recent meta-analysis found a slight increase in the risk of death from vitamin E supplements.
It’s not the most dangerous supplement (like vitamin A, beta-carotene and folic acid), but it’s still not worth paying money to essentially shorten your life!
Dr. Fuhrman advises avoiding supplementing selenium.
Evidence has emerged that high selenium levels may be associated with diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, imparired immune and thyroid function, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
While selenium dificiency is harmful, too much selenium is harmful too, so this becomes risky business.
Copper is an essential mineral.
The problem is recent studies have shown that excess copper could be associated with reduced immune function and lower antioxidant status.
Another study found that high copper intake combined with a diet high in saturated fats could lead to an accelerated rate of mental decline in older adults.
For these reasons, Dr. Fuhrman advises to not supplement copper.
Just like copper, iron is an essential mineral.
Iron is crucial for oxygen transport in the blood and takes part in many of the body’s vital chemical reactions.
But just like copper, the body stores excess iron and as we age these metals build up and become toxic–leading to mental decline and cardiovascular disease.
Other conditions that have been associated with high iron intake include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and diabetes. (source)
The most common sources of iron and copper are red meat and multivitamins. The problem with red meat is that it contains heme iron which is more easily absorbed.
Adequate, but not excessive amounts of iron and copper are found in plant foods.
For men and postmenopausal women, there is no need to supplement iron for all diets.
EVEN if you eat meat, the quality and quantity of iron is essential.
Wait, You Still May Need to Supplement Iron!
If you’re a woman in your child-bearing years, adequate iron stores are critical (if you become pregnant) and may be at risk for low iron stores because of poor absorption and heavy menstrual flow.
I know all about this, since last year I found out I had iron-deficiency anemia caused by excessive mestrual bleeding.
A low-dose iron supplement may be helpful if an increased need exists from heavy flow.
A blood test showing a ferritin level lower than 50ng/ml indicates a need for iron.
Stop Taking Multivitamins
The nuance here is that traditional multivitamins, the very ones you could have been taking religiously have some of those very harmful nutrients we discussed earlier (like vitamin A, beta-carotene, E, folic acid, copper, iron and selenium).
In his most recent book, The End of Dieting, Dr. Fuhrman advises against taking a standard multivitamin:
Some studies on multivitamins show benefits, and others don’t; but it’s not good science to look at studies on multivitamins as a whole because there are too many variables mixed together. Multivitamins are most often a combination of harmful substances and potentially helpful substances.
To learn more about these studies on multivitamins, check out this short video by Dr. Michael Greger: Should We Take a Multivitamin?
So, do not take traditional multivitamins.
Eating a plant based diet, you only need to take certain vitamins–namely, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, omega-3s, zinc and iron (if needed). Ones that have been proven to be helpful and necessary.
We are making our way to the exact daily recommendations soon, but let’s stop and talk about omega-3s first…
Take an Algae- or Yeast-Derived Omega-3 Supplement
Dr. Fuhrman identifies omaga-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA as “semi-essential nutrients.” Recent studies, discussed at length in The End of Dieting, confirm 3 areas where omega-3 supplementation improves your health:
- preventing cognitive decline (like dementia and Alzheimer’s)
- improving memory
- preventing depression
EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids.
EPA increases cerebral blood flow with messengers to the nervous system. DHA increases membrane fluidity, increases the growth of neurons and helps protect the brain from degeneration.
Yup, pretty important stuff!
You can’t get EPA and DHA from nuts and seeds. Walnuts, hemp and chia seeds, flaxseeds and soybeans are all good sources of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) short-chain omega-3s.
Dr. Fuhrman explains that ALA by itself is not enough because it has to be converted by your body to EPA and then finally to DHA; and this conversion varies considerably from person to person.
Dr. Fuhrman recommends that people who abstain from fatty fish (the richest food source of long-chain omega-3s) should supplement their diets with low doses of EPA and DHA, or at least have a blood test to make sure no significant deficiency exists.
Take a low-dosage algae supplement of about 200 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day, with at least 100 milligrams coming from the DHA component.
Okay! Only one last supplement to discuss ………….
Maybe you’ve heard of them before…
Should You Take Probiotics?
Probiotics are everywhere!
A few years ago it was all about antioxidants and now it’s all about probiotics. A news article released today reports that the probiotics market is expected to reach over $50 billion by 2020.
So, is it all hype or should you be taking probiotics on your health journey?
Dr. Fuhrman addresses probiotics, in depth, in his book Super Immunity.
Here’s a little primer on probiotics:
Probiotics are the health-promoting bacteria that are in our gastrointestinal tract. These bowel bacteria cells make up 95% of the total number of cells in your body! They play a critical role in the health of our immune system.
70% of your immune system is located in the GI tract, and the microflora (the bacterial population) of the GI tract constitute a complex ecosystem that can be viewed as an organ of the body.
It’s really simple: healthy foods promote healthy bacteria to live in your gut and unhealthy foods promote unhealthy bacteria and yeasts to form.
“Good” bacteria feast on fiber and resistant starch and “bad” bacteria and yeast feast on refined sugar and animal fat.
By eating a plant-based, no processed foods diet, like the Eat to live plan you are going to naturally repopulate your gut with the “good” bacteria. So you don’t really need to take probiotics on the plan, but you could help speed up the re-population process.
Dr. Fhurman identifies that probiotic supplements can be useful “when the normal native bacteria have been harmed or removed with antibiotic use or perverted with a diet of sweets and processed foods.”
If you have to take antibiotics, supplement with probiotics for at least 3 months after to help the good gut flora repopulate.
Other instances probiotics are helpful:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- autoimmune disease
- excessive yeast in the gut
- not eating properly for good health (processed, SAD diet)
If you think probitics would help you read Dr. Fuhrman’s article here to learn more about what strains are best.
I’m excited to share what I’ve been learning lately and present to you The Veggie Series. This series will be covering questions and discussing topics revolved around vegetables, of course. If you have any topics or ideas you would like me to write more in-depth about, send me an email or write a comment!
Hannah the Vegan