Supplementing on a Plant-based Diet (Part One)

This is part one of a two-part blog series addressing the role of supplementation in a well-planned, balanced plant-based diet. This post focuses specifically on the nutrients that I don’t supplement but are often thought to be lacking in this type of diet.   

As each day passes, the science is becoming more and more clear regarding the plethora of beneficial health outcomes experienced by those living on a plant-based diet. Individuals who choose to adopt a plant-based diet may do so for a variety of motivations such as for ethical reasons, to minimise their carbon footprint, to benefit health or for a combination of these. For me personally, I was initially attracted to this lifestyle purely on an ethical basis – specifically for animal welfare reasons. However, as time has past I have become equally as focused on the sustainability and health aspects associated with this lifestyle.

Being typically higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals but lower in saturated fat and calories, it has been found that those who follow plant-based diets generally experience a range of health benefits. These benefits include a lower risk of mortality from chronic diseases across the board – including cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and all cancers (colorectal and prostate in particular) – as well as a generally lower BMI and overall increased longevity.  These may be some of the reasons why within the last decade the rate of those adopting a plant-based diet has dramatically increased. This was recently illustrated in an Australian population study that found that the rates of veganism in adults had risen from 9.7% in 2012 to 11.2% in 2016 with the data suggesting that this trend is set to continue to rise. That’s an approximate increase of a whopping 400,000 people in a four year period!

Roy Morgan: The slow but steady rise of vegetarianism in Australia

However, as the popularity of this diet and lifestyle increases, so do the cautionary warnings regarding the nutrient adequacy of a diet lacking in animal products. Within this narrative, the major nutritional culprits are iron, calcium and – yep, you guessed it – protein. Whenever I am questioned by friends, family and colleagues alike, these are the nutrients that are typically brought up in conversation and I’m pretty confident that nearly everyone following a plant-based diet can also testify to this. 

So let’s delve briefly into these three nutrients and why I don’t (on the most part) supplement them…

Iron: Regarding iron intake, there are two forms of dietary iron found in foods: haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the human body than non-haem iron which is found in plant foods. Non-haem iron is also found in smaller quantities in plant-based foods than the amount of haem iron in their animal-based counterparts. However, due to the typically high intake of vitamin C on a plant-based diet, absorption of non-haem iron is enhanced. Consequently, vegans have a similar risk and instance of iron deficiency when compared to non-vegans or omnivores. Good sources of plant-based iron include legumes, seeds and dark leafy greens so if you’re following a plant-based diet make sure to get these in every day.

Calcium: When it comes to calcium, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the belief that dairy is the end-all-be-all of this vital nutrient is prevalent within the general public. As such, it can be a challenge for people to wrap their head around the fact that this is not the case. With that being said, individuals who eliminate dairy do need to be mindful to obtain calcium from a variety of alternative sources. Like all things, variety is key and individuals must make sure to consume products fortified with calcium (such as nut milks) as well as dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds and some legumes. In a well-balanced plant-based diet, individuals should easily be able to meet their daily requirement.
Note: Before I move on from this, I just want to quickly mention that the absorption of calcium is enhanced by Vitamin D, therefore it is important that Vitamin D levels are adequate to maintain bone health. This will be explored further in part-two of the series. 

Protein: When it comes to concerns of nutrient adequacy, protein takes the cake! No word of a lie, pretty much every time someone finds out I eat a plant-based diet, the first question I get asked is “But where do you get your protein?”. It’s actually a massive running joke in the plant-based community – we have memes are everything! So where do I get my protein from? The answer is simple: Plants! Small quantities of protein can be found in just about all plant foods. Some good sources include beans, legume, nuts, seeds quinoa and tofu – just to name a few. For those who are more educated on the subject of nutrition, the main focus of this concern is not on the amount of protein but instead the quality of protein. And more specifically, the amino acid profile of these sources. People will often argue that plant protein is not adequate as most plant sources of protein contain only some (not all) of the essential amino acids. This is true when looking at individual foods eaten alone, however that’s not the way we eat. We combine different types of foods to create meals. As such, combining foods that have complementary amino acid patterns addresses the argument against the adequacy of plant protein. 
Note: For full transparency, although I have included protein in this post as a nutrient that doesn’t require supplementation, I do use a plant-based protein powder in my morning smoothies to bulk them up. I’ve also started to increase my exercise routine and feel that by adding protein powder into my diet, it’s an easy way to ensure I’m getting enough protein every day. That being said, this type of supplementation isn’t isolated to just plant-based eaters which can be demonstrated by walking into your local health food store. Most of the protein powders are aimed at omnivores, a majority of them being whey-based. 

So there you have it! A plant-based diet can naturally fulfil the RDI for these vital nutrients that are typically thought to be solely derived from animal sources. With all of that being said, it’s still super important for those following a plant-based diet (or any diet for that matter) to pay close attention to what they’re consuming on a day-to-day basis to ensure they are meeting their daily nutritional requirements. Ensuring you are consuming enough calories every day and incorporating a variety of different plant foods in your diet are key in achieving nutrient adequacy. In addition to this, getting your blood levels tested regularly by your GP is recommended to check for any nutrient deficiencies – this is important as there are so many factors that affect absorption of nutrients so it’s best to address these before they progress any further.

If you enjoyed reading this post, stay tuned for part two of this series which will outline the nutrients I personally supplement on a plant-based diet. If you have any comments, questions or general feedback, I would love to hear it – just post a comment below.

Thanks for reading. xx

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