More than B12: The Ultimate Guide to Supplementing Your Plant-Based Diet

I'm here with a message that, without a doubt, isn't going to make me the most popular guy at the vegan potluck.

But it’s one I believe is absolutely critical to the long term health of our movement, and that’s why I'm committed to sharing it.

Here goes: We need more than just B12.

Sure, Vitamin B12 might be the only supplement required by vegans in order to survive. But if you’re anything like me, you’re interested in much more than survival -- you want to thrive.

A Cautionary Tale

I was lucky: I caught my deficiencies before they could do much lasting damage.

But if I hadn’t been so meticulous in monitoring how my body responded to adopting a plant-based diet, I might not have been so fortunate.

Two years into my plant-based transformation, motivated by the loss of two loved ones to chronic diseases, and driven by my obsessive nature to read nearly 200 books and twice as many peer-reviewed articles, I was shocked when my monthly blood draw prompted my doctor to diagnose me with “rheumatoid-like inflammation.”

That’s right. Despite feeling energetic, running faster than ever, and having lost 30 pounds of excess weight -- all signs that the plant-based diet was the key to lasting health -- my blood panel showed levels of inflammation on par with autoimmune disease.

I was no junk-food vegan. I ate pounds of fruits and vegetables every day. (I know because Whole Foods charges by weight.) And I made sure to get Vitamin B12.

Health, longevity, and nutrition were my obsessions.

How could I be “sick”!?

The 3 Essential Nutrients You're Not Getting From Plants

Don't get me wrong: plants are nutritional powerhouses, and a plant-based diet is the best way you can eat. When you weigh the scientific evidence, the compelling fact becomes clear: focusing your diet on whole plants is the best way to ensure vibrant health and maximum longevity.

So this is not about adding more of the nutrients that you already derive from plant-based foods (like protein, for example, or most of the vitamins and minerals in a typical multivitamin). 

Instead, it’s about complementing your intake of plants with the three essential nutrients that are not found in the most commonly consumed plants (or not adequately absorbed from those plant sources). These critical nutrients come from bacteria, the Earth's surface, or the sun's rays.

Let's explore each of these nutrients to help you understand why you need them, and just as importantly, what you can do about it.

1. Vitamin B12

The Story

As most people know, there are no adequate plant-sources of B12 -- despite what you might have heard about eating “dirty” vegetables.

Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in soil in which our food grows. By eating vegetables straight from the family garden, or foraged from the wild, humans have historically ingested trace amounts of B12. Thanks to modern agricultural practices, though, the amount of B12 available on the surface of your unwashed fruits and veggies nowadays is questionable at best.

While you may theoretically be able to derive B12 from dirty vegetables, when you recognize the critical importance of B12, you realize that method is quite risky. You are essentially rolling the dice with a nutrient that is critical for neurological function, for maintaining your immune system, and even for making blood cells and DNA. Vegans who remain B12 deficient for many years could ultimately develop anemia and neurological issues.

Why It Matters for Vegans

Certain animal products, like red meat, contain B12 -- those animals ingested the B12 as they grazed the land, consuming the soil along with their food. Thus, humans who eat other animals are essentially supplementing their B12 stores by ingesting the B12 and the bacteria in and on the meat. Of course, since vegans don't eat animals, they need to get B12 from another source.

How to Get It

You can maintain adequate B12 stores by intentionally eating foods fortified with the vitamin -- nutritional yeast is a great example, but many common breads and cereals are also fortified. This, of course, is just another form of supplementation, but one that some people prefer. Personally, with a nutrient as critical as B12, I prefer to know that we're getting a precise amount every day, so I complement my diet with B12.

How Much You Need

You don’t require large amounts of B12 in order to maintain optimal levels. That’s because your body secretes the vitamin in tiny amounts over long periods of time. So long as you consume around 2.4 mcg (that’s micrograms) per day, you can rest assured that your body can utilize ample stores of B12 for the foreseeable future, even if you miss a couple of days or even weeks. (Don’t be alarmed if your supplement provides much more than 2.4 mcg. Because B12 is water-soluble, there is little risk of overloading to the point of toxicity.)

2. Vitamin D

The Story

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies, like those of other animals, activate D in reaction to sun exposure. You might spend a lot of time outdoors, but you also wear clothing, and most of your working hours are likely spent indoors. That means our natural ability to soak up the sun's rays is limited. As a result, many of us -- regardless of dietary pattern -- are deficient in Vitamin D.

So why does D matter? Scientific evidence suggests that being “D-ficient” may increase the risk of various chronic diseases, from osteoporosis to heart disease, some cancers, and even multiple sclerosis. Vitamin D is a factor in the expression of more than a thousand genes throughout the body. If those genes are not expressed properly, any number of issues can ensue, hence the wide-ranging health implications. We have long known the importance of Vitamin D for bone health and immune function, but we’re just now realizing how impactful this vitamin really is. For just one example, look at heart health. Studies have shown that low Vitamin D levels are associated with overall cardiovascular disease, including a higher risk of heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and strokes.

Why It Matters for Vegans

Just like humans, other animals activate Vitamin D from sun exposure. So people who consume animal products like eggs or fish are ingesting some amount of Vitamin D that way. Moreover, many dairy products are fortified with D, so those items are essentially “supplementing” Vitamin D intake as well.

How to Get It

Theoretically, you can activate all the Vitamin D you need just by exposing your skin to the sun. But, for the reasons mentioned above, you might not be getting that much sun. If you can’t ensure adequate (and safe) sun exposure, it’s best to supplement with some form of Vitamin D, with an algae- or mushroom-derived form of Vitamin D. I suggest looking for D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the type synthesized by the human body that's more effective in raising blood levels.  

How Much You Need

Most experts suggest that, for optimal health and even cancer prevention, blood levels of Vitamin D should be greater than 30 mg/dL. If you, or your physician, is concerned about low Vitamin D levels, many experts, like Dr. Michael Greger, suggest a supplemental dose around 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3. Look for “Vitashine” on the label -- that’s the only vegan form of D3.

3. DHA and EPA (The Other Omega-3’s)

The Story

We've all heard of the importance of Omega-3’s, but we don't often hear that not all Omega-3’s are created equal. And this leads many vegans to make a huge mistake in their nutrition that could eventually become detrimental to their health.

Omega fatty acids from flax or chia seeds -- the "ALA" kind -- are an amazing addition to your plate, but many vegan don't adequately consume other forms -- namely DHA and EPA, which are critical for cardiovascular and brain health.

Omega-3’s play a key role in nearly every cell of your body. As such, a daily intake of these essential fatty acids is critical for optimal functioning -- from regulating your cholesterol levels to powering your nervous system. One of the most important functions -- which we are just recently beginning to appreciate -- is controlling the low-grade, systemic inflammation that is tied to many chronic diseases, like Alzheimer disease. And some of the strongest evidence relates to the benefits in preventing and treating heart disease.

ALA is abundantly available from plant-based foods, especially flax, chia, and hemp seeds, soybeans, and walnuts. Just remember to crush or grind the flax seeds because our GI tract is unable to breakdown the shell. 

It's also true that we can create DHA and EPA from ALA. So why not just focus on eating tons of ALA? We're glad you asked, because this is one of the most common misconceptions among vegans I talk to.

The challenge is that our bodies are extremely inefficient at deriving DHA or EPA from ALA. Research suggests that less than 1% of ALA is converted into "physiologically effective levels" of DHA or EPA. A blood test can diagnose how well you convert ALA into DHA and EPA; the vast majority of people cannot do so adequately.

Why They Matter for Vegans

Fish consume micro-algae and other marine plants, and these species of seaweed are the root source of high-quality EPA and DHA. Those compounds are then deposited in the fish’s fat deposits. That’s why folks looking for a supplemental source Omega-3’s take fish oil capsules. It’s not that fish uniquely produce DHA or EPA; it’s that fish eat Omega-3-rich seaweed. So if you don’t eat fish, or tons of seaweed, you may not have an adequate source of EPA and DHA in your daily diet.

How to Get Them

You might be thinking, “Seaweed is a plant, so I’ll just eat that!” The problem with this idea relates to the actual quantity available to absorb. Because seaweeds are so low in fat, they provide relatively low amounts of EPA and DHA on a per gram basis. So you would have to eat an extraordinary amount of seaweed every single day in order to reap a sufficient amount of Omega-3’s.

But practically speaking, most people can’t or won’t do that. That’s why I strongly suggest considering ways to supplement your intake of DHA and EPA.

How Much You Need

If you don’t regularly consume sources of DHA and EPA, you won’t show signs of deficiency in the next year or two, at least not in the same palpable way as you could with B12. The damage is more subtle and corrosive, the sort that is imperceptible until it manifests in a chronic disease later in life.

So how much should you consume? The scientific community has not reached agreement in terms of a recommended daily intake for DHA and EPA. Some experts to suggest that adults should consume 300 mg of DHA per day. Other dietitians encourage us to aim for a larger intake, like a combined daily dose of EPA and DHA near 650 mg.

Other Nutrients?

Although B12, D, and DHA/EPA are the nutrients I think every vegan should complement their diet with (unless you've done blood and DNA testing to determine otherwise), some people will also want to consider others as well, like iodine, zinc, and Vitamin K2. These can all be found naturally in certain plant-based foods, but in the case of iodine and K2, these foods are relatively rare in Western diets. Zinc, while available in beans, nuts, and grains, isn't often absorbed well from plant-based foods.

Scientists disagree on the importance of each for people eating diverse, plant-based diets, but our team is monitoring the science carefully to keep our formula up to date with the latest research.

Why Complementing is Key to the Plant-Based Movement

The plant-based community’s dedication to whole foods leads many of us to reject the idea of “supplementing.” I get that, and now I take proactive steps to complement those plants with the essential nutrients that might be missing -- not a multivitamin, not protein powder, just the few nutrients really can't get from my diet.

The great news is that a diet based on whole plants is packed with the vast majority of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals -- not to mention the ideal macronutrient profile -- so you don't need to worry, and calculate, and measure. Just eat lots of whole plants, and be aware that there are a few nutrients -- those explained above -- that you might want to give extra consideration, to maximize your chances of living a long, healthy, vibrant life.