It is true that all the essential vitamins and minerals can be found in vegan products. The problem is that some nutrients, like iron or vitamin B12, are most abundant in animal products. So do you need supplements if you have a healthy, balanced vegan diet?
Deficiency of nutrients in a diet may be not immediately noticeable. It is long-term food patterns that count. The best way to be sure that you are on the safe side is a medical check. Simple blood test can reveal a lot about our health, including whether the levels of essential vitamins and minerals in our bodies are sufficient. So it is a very good idea to have such test regularly for your own peace of mind. If the test shows that everything is perfect, then congratulations! But you might be surprised when you find out that even with very healthy diet and lifestyle, some of us still have low levels of some essential nutrients. One of the common problems in the U.K. is low vitamin D levels. Its deficiency is often related to lack of sun exposure, so a healthy diet alone cannot help it. Vegans are especially at risk as the main food sources of vitamin D are fish, meat and eggs.
Another problem is understanding how different elements of our diet and eating habits interact with each other. You may think, for example, that you consume the right level of iron. But if you have high level of caffeine in your blood then this iron cannot be properly absorbed, no matter how iron-rich the food you eat is. Other examples may be less obvious - Calcium absorption is reduced when we eat spinach, salty food, or high fibre food like whole-wheat cereal or pasta reduces calcium absorption. Tracking all those different interactions when planning our diet may be a difficult task.
You can meet your daily recommended amounts from different sources, but you should plan it in combination with your overall diet goals like daily calories or carbs intake. For example, daily Nutrient Reference Value (NRV) of vitamin B12 can be obtained from 96g of beef (240 kcal), or 119g of fortified cereals (427 kcal). This amount of cereals will also provide 14g of sugar (zero grams in beef), and less than half of the proteins contained in beef. This example illustrates why in practice assuring healthy and balanced diet rich in all of the essential nutrients may be tricky.
We should not assume that any food that has vegan origin is healthy and eating it will provide us with all we need. Do vegan brownies really have anything to do with healthy eating? How about vegan bacon? This type of food is quite far from natural whole food sources. And even fresh fruit and vegetables may be lower in vitamins than you would expect, due to today’s ways of agricultural treatment. For example, pesticides, antibiotics and extensive washing of fruit and vegetables removes any vitamin B12 which is produced by bacterias.
It definitely is possible to create a vegan diet that meets all the nutrition requirements, but this may require some dietitian expertise, time to compose everyday meal plans, and access to highest quality natural food sources. For most of us, constrained by budget and timing in our fast pace lifestyle, one-per-day supplementation is the easiest way to assure we do not miss any of the essential nutrients. It is like going to gym, which may not be needed by someone who has very active lifestyle, but for other people busy with their jobs gym remains the best and time efficient way of assuring your daily fitness needs.
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