5 Supplements to Ask Your Doctor About if You’re on a Plant-Based Diet
The plant-based diet has been gaining more and more popularity with greater recognition of both the environmental and health benefits. Incorporating more plants into our diets can be particularly helpful for gut health and improving diversity of the gut microbiome (the colony of bacteria living in your digestive system), which in turn has plenty of positive effects for overall health.
Even with all these perks, there are some nutrients to keep front of mind when you’re on a plant-based diet. Reducing your intake of animal-based foods can result in potential lack of key nutrients the body needs that we might normally source from these foods.
As much as dietitians and nutritionists encourage getting nutrients from food first, it can sometimes be helpful to get a little boost from supplements to cover any nutritional gaps. Supplements are useful when they are needed, which can be determined by assessing dietary intake as well as consulting with a doctor about any symptoms or signs that may be present when not consuming enough of those nutrients.
The list below is our top five supplements that we recommend speaking to your doctor about if you are following a plant-based diet.
5 Best Supplements to Ask Your Doctor About if You’re on a Plant-Based Diet
Iron is involved in transporting oxygen around the body and also has other functions including the creation of some hormones. Although plant-based diets can provide plenty of iron, it’s usually in the form of non-haem iron, which is less easily absorbed in the body than the haem iron found in animal meats in particular. In a plant-based diet, focus on incorporating plenty of sources of non-haem iron such as green leafy vegetables, dried figs and almonds, and pair these with Vitamin C for an extra absorption boost.
Iron absorption is limited when calcium is consumed at the same time, which adds another element of difficulty in getting enough iron absorption in a plant-based diet. Iron is a supplement that we don’t recommend taking unless your levels are low, so speaking to your doctor about your iron levels is recommended before beginning supplementation.
2. Vitamin B12
Animal products and fortified foods are the key sources of vitamin B12, which is a water-soluble vitamin involved in red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, neurological function and more.
Signs of low B12 status include fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite and neurological changes such as depression or poor memory. B12 supplements are readily available but it's worth a chat with your doctor and dietitian first to see if you need to add these to your routine.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have a range of essential functions in the body, from their involvement in cell membrane structure to hormone health, heart health and brain health. There are three main types of omega-3 fats – ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA (alpha-linolenic) acid is found in plant-based foods including walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flax seeds, while EPA and DHA are found mainly in seafood, with DHA considered the most beneficial for brain and heart health. The body can make EPA and DHA from ALA fatty acids, however, the conversion process isn’t very efficient.
Because a plant-based diet doesn’t include fish, a discussion with your doctor can help determine the need for adding an omega-3 supplement into your mix.
Not only does calcium keep your bones strong and healthy, but it’s also involved in muscle and nerve function, blood clotting and heart function. Dairy foods are typically known as the best source of calcium in the diet, however, if you have reduced dairy intake or swapped it out for a plant-based option, calcium intake often drops.
While many plant-based foods do contain small amounts of calcium and dairy alternatives are often fortified, these still may not meet daily requirements, especially during certain life stages when calcium requirements increase (such as menopause). A dietitian can help to analyse your intake, while speaking with your doctor can also help determine if calcium supplementation is needed for you.
Zinc is present in a lot of plant-based foods but similar to iron, it isn’t as readily absorbed as the zinc in animal-based foods. Given the role of zinc in immune health, hormone health, DNA synthesis and other important functions throughout the body, checking your need for this supplement with your doctor is recommended to ensure requirements are met daily.
Although plant-based diets are considered a healthy pattern of eating – whether that includes small amounts of animal products or not – nutritional deficiencies can still occur, particularly if there isn’t a lot of variety in the diet to help meet different nutrient requirements. Supplements can be helpful in these circumstances but are not always necessary or helpful in large doses. Remember to speak to your GP or dietitian before making any dietary changes.
Always seek the guidance of your doctor, dietitian or other qualified health professional prior to starting a new eating plan.
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Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.
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