Top 9 Nutrients to Supplement a Plant-Based Diet
There’s power in plants. They’re extremely nutrient-dense, packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and plenty of other phytonutrients (plant nutrients). And the best part? You can harness that plant power to nourish your body and fuel your active lifestyle.
A plant-based diet can mean something different to everyone, and there’s no one-size fits all approach.. Vegetarian and vegan diets both fall under the umbrella of plant-based eating, but your diet doesn’t require a label. The main concept of all plant-based diets is the same: eat more plants and less meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products.
But even if you follow the perfect plant-based diet, there are still a handful of nutrients to keep an eye on. Take a look at the top 9 nutrients to supplement a primarily plant-based diet.
Vitamin D is like your body’s MVP – it plays roles in bone health, heart health, immune health, and more.* But it’s hard to get enough vitamin D from food alone – no matter what type of diet you follow. That’s because vitamin D is only found naturally in a few foods, like fatty fish, egg yolks, and cod liver oil. Some plant-based foods are fortified with vitamin D, like plant milks (almond, soy, etc.) and orange juice, so those are great options to help increase your vitamin D intake on a plant-based diet.
Your body can make vitamin D from the sun, too, but that’s not always a reliable source. Geographic location, age, skin color, environmental conditions, and sunscreen use all affect how much vitamin D your body can produce.
When food and sunlight aren’t enough, a high-quality vitamin D supplement can help fill in the gaps. If you follow an exclusively plant-based diet, be sure to choose a vitamin D supplement derived from lichen instead of lanolin (which often comes from sheep’s wool). Talk with your healthcare provider to find out how much supplemental vitamin D you need each day.
Vitamin B12 is a hot topic in vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based communities. It’s a water-soluble vitamin that’s vital for DNA and red blood cell production, as well as healthy nerve function.* And your body doesn’t need a lot of vitamin B12 to do its job. In fact, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 for adults is only 2.4 micrograms (mcg).
If you need so little, it shouldn’t be too hard to get that from your diet, right?
Well, for plant-based eaters, it’s not so easy. Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products like meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products. Nori and seaweed are often touted for their plant-based vitamin B12 content, but they’re not actually a reliable source of this important nutrient. Be sure to include cereal, plant-based milks, and nutritional yeast that have been fortified with vitamin B12 to boost your B12 intake.
But remember, vitamin B12 carries out some critical roles in your body, so it’s best not to take any chances if you follow a plant-based diet. Most experts recommend enlisting the help of a vitamin B12 supplement to make sure you get enough. You’ll find vitamin B12 supplements typically ranging from 250-1000 mcg, which is much higher than the RDA. But you don’t really have to worry about getting too much. Your body only absorbs a small percentage of vitamin B12 from supplements, and there have been no toxic or adverse effects associated with large doses of vitamin B12 from food or supplements in healthy people.
Calcium is well-known for its role in bone health, but it also helps keep your heart and nerves healthy, too.* Adults need around 1,000-1,200 mg of calcium each day.
Although most people turn to dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) to meet their calcium needs, they’re not your only option. Calcium-rich plant foods like soy, beans, lentils, nuts (especially almonds and Brazil nuts), and dark green vegetables, such as kale, Bok choy, collard greens, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all great vegan options to up your calcium intake. Spinach is rich in calcium, too. But beware – it’s also high in oxalate, which binds to calcium and makes it less available for your body to use. So, don’t rely on spinach too heavily to meet your calcium needs. Certain foods are also fortified with calcium, like plant-based milks, orange juice, and some cereals.
If you’re struggling to include plenty of plant-based calcium foods in your diet, you may consider adding a high-quality calcium supplement to your daily routine.
Iron is a mineral involved in healthy physical growth, neurological development, and oxygen storage and transportation.*
You’ll find dietary iron in two different forms:
- Heme iron. This form of iron is found in animal foods, like meat, poultry, and fish, and it’s easier for your body to absorb.
- Non-heme iron. This form of iron is found in plant foods like leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Pairing these foods with vitamin C-rich foods (like citrus or bell peppers) can help increase absorption.
The RDA for iron is 8 mg for men and postmenopausal women, and 18 mg for premenopausal women. But, if you rely solely on plant foods to meet your iron needs, you actually need 1.8 times more iron than the RDA to compensate for the difference in bioavailability between heme and non-heme iron. If that seems overwhelming, think about adding an iron supplement or multivitamin with iron to your daily routine.
Your body doesn’t make iodine, so you have to get it through your diet or supplements. Adults need about 150 mcg of iodine per day. Most plant foods don’t have much iodine, except for seaweed (like kelp and nori). These aquatic species absorb iodine from seawater, and although iodine content may vary, they’re a great option for those following a plant-based diet.
Table salt is also often fortified with iodine, but don’t go too crazy on the salt shaker. The American Heart Association (AHA) still recommends limiting sodium to 2,300 mg or less per day. Keep in mind that specialty salts, like sea salt or Himalayan salt, are not fortified with iodine.
As a sidekick in hundreds of essential biochemical reactions in the body, magnesium helps produce energy, supports nerve and muscle function, and helps regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rhythm ⎼ just to name a few.* The RDA for magnesium ranges from 310-420 mg per day for adults.
Magnesium is pretty abundant in plant foods. So, as long as you plan your vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet well and fill your plate with foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, you should have your magnesium needs covered.
If you find yourself struggling to achieve a varied diet, consider a multivitamin with magnesium.
Zinc helps make proteins and DNA, supports your immune system, and even plays a role in your sense of taste and smell.* Men need about 11 mg of zinc per day, while women need about 8 mg per day.
There are plenty of zinc-rich plant foods, including legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. But unfortunately, these foods also contain phytates, compounds that bind to zinc and make it harder for your body to absorb. But don’t worry – a high-quality zinc supplement or a multivitamin with zinc can help make sure you get enough zinc.
You’ve probably heard of vitamin K. But there are actually two forms:
- Vitamin K1 helps your blood clot.* It’s abundant in plant foods, like kale, Swiss chard, and spinach, as well as some plant oils.
- Vitamin K2 activates osteocalcin, a protein that takes calcium from your blood so your body can use it to build strong bones.* Plus, it helps support heart health, too.* You’ll find vitamin K2 mostly in plant foods, like pork, chicken, some cheeses, and eggs. Natto is the only known plant-based source of vitamin K2 at this time – it’s a traditional Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans.
The RDA for vitamin K is 90 mcg for women and 120 mcg for men. Unfortunately, the RDA doesn’t differentiate between vitamin K1 and vitamin K2, so there’s no specific RDA for vitamin K2 at this time. But, given its role in bone and heart health, vitamin K2 is an important nutrient to include in your diet.*
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA)
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
ALA is found in plant foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, and plant oils, and it’s the only “essential” omega-3 fatty acid. That’s because your body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA – but it’s not very good at it. And that’s unfortunate because research suggests that DHA and EPA are the most beneficial omega-3s, involved in healthy brain and vision development, heart health, and even athletic recovery.*
Most people get DHA and EPA from seafood or an omega-3 fish oil supplement. If you follow a plant-based diet that excludes fish, consider an omega-3 supplement sourced from algal oil instead.
The power of plants is undeniable. But if your diet is mostly vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based, make sure you don’t let any of these nutrients slip through the cracks. Think about using a high-quality multivitamin formulated for your plant-based diet needs as your safety net.
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