With veganism making unprecedented strides towards mainstream acceptance, there’s never been a more exciting time to be plant-based.
But with so many people going vegan, are there any problems we’re facing?
I recently had a chance to speak to Matt Frazier, founder and author of No Meat Athlete, about his vision for the vegan movement. In particular, I asked him what he thought is the biggest mistake new vegans make.
Here is Matt’s take:
When people ask me about the biggest mistake I’ve made in my plant-based journey, it’s a no-brainer: I went too long without supplementing.
It is so easy to fall into that trap where you feel great because you are eating all these plant foods and you feel high energy. I mean you can feel great until you go to the doctor and you realize something is off.
I was happy to hear that Matt is so aware of the potential risks of nutrient deficiencies. Matt has been focused on this topic in his work at No Meat Athlete, and to get a better picture of how many vegans are actually supplementing, he asked his audience to participate in a survey.
Let’s take a look at the results—with specific attention to three nutrients not typically found in a plant-based diet—to better understand Matt’s concern about supplementing as a vegan.
How Many Vegans Take Supplements
The good news is that 80% of the 2,088 vegan or near-vegan No Meat Athlete survey respondents were taking B12, which is widely recommended by experts in plant-based nutrition.
Although it would be great to see that percentage grow (and I hope those 20% who are not currently taking B12 as a supplement are eating plenty of fortified foods!), it is good to see that the message about the importance of B12 is getting through to most people.
So what about Vitamin D, the next most common supplement among vegans? (And, for the record, a vitamin that omnivores are often deficient in as well.)
Just over half (56%) of the vegan respondents take a supplemental form of vitamin D. As a dietitian, I know that vitamin D is important in helping us absorb calcium to build strong bones and can help to prevent some types of cancer. Unfortunately, only 23% of Americans have sufficient levels of vitamin D. Only 23%! Those who live where exposure to direct sunlight is limited – like the northern United States, Canada, or northern Europe – are particularly at risk.
It would be great to see the proportion of people taking vitamin D supplements grow, especially in the wintertime, when we are at high risk of deficiency.
And how about omega-3s, which can also prove difficult to adequately consume as part of a typical plant-based diet?
Only 26% of respondents confirmed that they currently supplementing omega-3 intake. Further troubling is that many of these people list flax oil as their form of supplementation—which, although a wonderful, vegan source of ALA, does not offer DHA/EPA, two essential types of omega-3s that aren’t found in most plant-based foods. (Learn more about the difference between ALA, DHA, and EPA.)
Most concerning of all, perhaps, is that 10% of vegans and near-vegans do not take any supplements. Let’s just hope they’re managing to meet their needs through careful planning of a whole foods, plant-based diet, combined with fortified vegan foods.
Or perhaps they are actually deficient in some key nutrients, and may have no idea. That’s the big mistake Matt Frazier is worried about.
Why is Deficiency Such a Big Deal?
If there’s anything that we can all agree upon, it’s that we want a thriving plant-based community. That means we need each member of our plant-based family to be the best possible version of themselves.
That’s part of the reason why Matt suggests one of the biggest mistakes is not supplementing: you may not just be jeopardizing your health, but also risking the health of our movement.
After all, the rise of veganism and plant-based lifestyles has been a decades-long journey. And it will continue to be a generational struggle. We need every member of our community to live long, vibrant lives, and nutrient deficiencies directly threaten that future.
As Matt explains it:
A lot of the problems that arise from deficiencies, they might just show up in some pretty subtle symptom that is not totally obvious and that you can live with for a while. But if you go several years and you are deficient in some of these things, I think a lot of these problems are chronic in nature and will show up later at the cost of longevity or quality of life later on.
The risk of deficiency in particular nutrients is not unique to a “vegan” lifestyle—it occurs with omnivorous, paleo, and any other dietary pattern. Every way of eating has the potential to be higher or lower in certain essential nutrients. That’s why everyone should be thoughtful about their nutrition and engage a qualified professional to help track your health outcomes.
The only way to ensure that you have adequate nutrient stores is to visit your health professional to get blood tests done. If you don’t do so, you might have deficiencies that could increase your health risks. The good news is that most deficiencies can be corrected through supplementation.
It’s Easy to Overlook the Need for Supplementation
Matt explained why this is an important topic to consider for all plant-based people:
There are just a handful of nutrients that, for one reason or another, simply aren’t that easy to get on a plant-based diet … nutrients that, when lacking in your diet, can result in deficiencies that have a serious impact on your long-term health, even increasing risk of heart disease and cancer if allowed to persist.
To reiterate, Matt was one of those vegans who started out not taking any supplements. He shared more of his personal experience:
One of my regrets is that I was not mindful of this stuff in the early days, and I went a long time without even supplementing with B12 and then I actually started to have some of the symptoms of B12 deficiency.
I never was diagnosed with that as a problem, but I started supplementing on my own and the symptoms went away. Then, it took another year or so before I started thinking about D and EPA & DHA.
What about you? Are you supplementing, or complementing, your plant-based diet?
Some of us are learning the hard way that, although eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet is extremely healthy, we can nonetheless develop nutrient deficiencies if we don’t pay attention to the details.
How to Protect Yourself and Strengthen Our Movement
Think ten to twenty years down the road. Of course we hope that an increasing proportion of the population will enjoy a plant-based lifestyle. But if many vegans end up developing deficiencies, and this leads to disease, that may cause people to turn away from veganism—which is obviously not going to help us grow the movement!
So what can you and I do to protect ourselves?
Matt offered great advice for vegans, new and seasoned:
Be mindful and don’t fall into the ‘Oh I feel great therefore everything is good’ mentality, because it is possible that a deficiency will show up slowly and subtly without you really noticing; and that is not a good thing.
So take some time to have a look at your diet, understand the nutritional profile that you’re consuming each day, and make sure you are getting an adequate supply of the essential nutrients, with particular attention to B12, Vitamin D, and omega-3s.
Cronometer and other nutrition tracking apps can help with this. You don’t need to track your diet long-term, but doing so for a few days will help you gauge whether you are ingesting the essential nutrients, in adequate volumes, through your typical daily intake.
If you are not getting enough of a particular nutrient or two (and it’s almost impossible to do without the help of fortified foods or supplements, especially in the cases of B12 and DHA/EPA), it could be time to consider a change—and maybe even a supplemental source.
Don’t wait until you have signs of deficiency before ensuring that your intake of these key nutrients is sufficient. It’s critically important to ensure health now and into the future—for both you and for our movement.
Written by Dr. Pamela Fergusson, RD, PhD