Veganism has skyrocketed recently, with a fourfold increase over the past 5 years, to approximately 600,000 vegans in the UK and roughly one in eight Britons identifying as either vegetarian or vegan. It can be a fantastic lifestyle choice for many people, whether that’s ethically, for wellness or even for the planet. However, making sure to consume the correct nutrients for your personal dietary needs can be somewhat of a minefield. We look into whether supplementing too little, (or too much) of certain vitamins could potentially impact your health and spoke to wellness expert and dietitian Lola Biggs, about essential nutrients for supporting a vegan diet and what to look out for on a plant-based journey.
The Vital Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamin B12 is probably the first nutrient people think of when they are talking about deficiencies in a vegan diet. Found in soil (specifically soil containing the mineral cobalt,) B12 is produced by bacteria in the earth, as well as in the guts of animals. However, over time the quality of farming soil has declined (as well as the fact our vegetables are more often than not extensively washed,) which means B12 is very hard to come by naturally without eating meat. It is therefore a very good idea to supplement your B12 intake if you are vegetarian or vegan. Lola informed us that ‘Vitamin B12 contributes to normal cell differentiation/division, normal function of the immune system, normal energy-yielding metabolism and normal red blood cell formation’, so to stay healthy and fit, it is an essential element in your diet. You can buy foods such as certain cereals, plant milks or nutritional yeast that are fortified with B12, but your safest bet is to take a supplement each day, such as the Together Health B12 Vegan Complex.
You probably know that calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth, but it is also crucial for muscle function, blood pressure, neurotransmission and many more important bodily functions. Dairy products often provide a source of calcium, so when you’re switching to a plant-based lifestyle, you will need to ensure you consume different sources, such as leafy green vegetables like broccoli, okra and cabbage. As well as this, tofu is an excellent source of calcium and there are also extensive ranges of fortified soya, oat and rice milks which you can incorporate into your diet.
Another extremely vital vitamin for not only physical, but also mental health, is Iron. It is incredibly important for maintaining normal function of the immune system as well as bolstering your cognitive abilities too. A lack of iron can lead to issues like anaemia or severe fatigue, so if you’re feeling sleepy all the time, it could possibly be a shortage of iron in your diet. The reason this may impact vegans especially, is the fact that a strong source of iron is traditionally found in red meat and other animal products. However, there are plenty of vegan supplements like the amazing Blue Iron liquid, that will give you your recommended daily intake with a tasty blueberry flavoured punch.
As well as this, Lola laments that you can incorporate plenty of tasty, vegan Iron-packed food into your diet too, such as ‘cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds’ to up your intake. You also tend to lose Iron on your period via red blood cells, so even those on a non-vegan diet could boost their intake and absorption around this time, to steer clear of any deficiency related issues.
Can This Affect Your Mental Health?
We know everyone is different and diets are more flexible and interchangeable than ever, so it can be difficult to pin-point what is best for you and when it is a good idea to supplement vitamins and minerals. However, when it comes to your mental wellbeing, it is always important to think about B vitamins. According to Mayo Clinic, ‘Vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins play a role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Low levels of B-12 and other B vitamins such as vitamin B-6 and folate may be linked to depression’.
There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, but we do know that B12 is rarely found in large enough levels (if at all) in a vegan diet, so taking a well-rounded supplement could potentially help you with low mood. We are not suggesting you should do this instead of going to talk to your GP if you are struggling with anxiety or depression, but that it is a key element of your overall health. As well as B12, B6 and folate have been linked to mental health in a similar way, so taking a complete multivitamin may just boost your health from head to toe.
As much as consuming too little of something could potentially be detrimental to your wellbeing, sometimes going to the other extreme of over supplementing a vitamin can itself be an issue. A good example of this is Vitamin D. Contributing to the absorption of calcium, immune function and bone, heart and muscle health, it is obviously an important element of a balanced diet. However, aside from fatty fish, not many foods include high levels of Vitamin D and a lot of people don’t get enough sun exposure to produce it themselves.
So, it would seem if you are a vegan living in London for example, it is probably a good idea to supplement. However, taking high doses of Vitamin D3 for long periods of time, may build up in your body. Because it is stored in fat and released slowly, toxicity could potentially occur for months, affecting your blood levels, causing nausea and sickness and even in some rare cases; kidney failure. This is why it is so important to never exceed the recommended daily dose of supplements, and if you are taking multiple products, always cross check the ingredients. Read more via this Healthline article on 6 side effects of too much Vitamin D.
Eating a balanced diet is always an amazing place to start when it comes to giving your body what it needs, and whether you are vegan, veggie or even flexitarian, always do what’s best for you on your wellness journey. We love simple supplements like a multivitamin to save on stress, especially for those swimming in a sea of nutritional news and information.