Does the need to supplement undermine veganism?

Supplementation is virtually a must for vegans.

B12 is the obvious example. Some claim that you can get by on nutritional yeast and plant milks. I’m skeptical of even fortified foods because it’s easy to get inactive analogues of B12.

It’s a subject of debate whether vegans need to take Omega-3s. ALA is easy to get from oils, walnuts and flaxseed, but only a small fraction (about 10%) converts to EPA. An even smaller fraction (about 3%) of EPA converts to DHA. Those conversion rates can vary quite a bit from person to person as well¹. Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. I supplement to be on the safe side. Anyone who doesn’t eat a lot of fish should consider doing the same.

In fact, vegans are not in a unique position in their need to supplement. Does being vegan require you to be more thoughtful about your micronutrient needs? Absolutely, but I ague that this is a feature not a bug.

There’s a book called “You: The Owner’s Manual,” the title of which uses the perfect metaphor to capture how we should think of our bodies. Most people’s default mode is to take health for granted—to be relentlessly optimistic about the state of their bodies, while giving no real thought to their health. How much time do you spend making sure you get your RDA of Vitamin A every day? Although we have rigorous USDA guidelines to determine what our bodies need, “a significant number are not meeting those benchmarks,” according to Duffy MacKay, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition. Despite this, people generally act as if they eat a perfectly balanced diet effortlessly.

I don’t mean to imply the opposite extreme: that we should all be logging our every bite into a food tracker to assess our nutrition. It can be easy to meet your nutritional needs as long as you’re aware of the vitamins and minerals that aren’t well represented in your normal diet. Once you are aware of your potential nutritional shortcomings you can make a conscious effort to include foods rich in that nutrient. If those foods don’t work with your diet for whatever reason, than supplementation may be the right choice for you.

Being thoughtful about your nutritional needs is important for the entire population. As mentioned, vegans and non-fish-eating omnivores are in the same position with respect to Omega-3 needs. People who live in northern climate and/or spend a lot of time indoors, away from the sun (i.e. most westerners) could benefit from a D supplement. Registered Dietitians Jack Norris and Ginny Messina make the point that vegans’ awareness on B12 is an advantage. As people age, they lose their ability to absorb B12 from food. Meat eater and vegan alike should be supplementing with B12 in advanced age².

Furthermore, the availability of B12 in animal products is not necessarily natural. Ruminants, like sheep and cows, require cobalt-rich soil to produce B12. The unnatural environments of factory farming mean that animals live in depleted, pesticide-laden soil. Dr. Jennifer Rooke writes that “in order to maintain meat [as] a source of B12 the meat industry now adds it to animal feed, 90% of B12 supplements produced in the world are fed to livestock.” We all supplement with B12, vegans just cut out the middle man.

There are more mundane examples of food fortification, which is essentially a sneaky form of supplementation. We all benefit from the iodine placed in table salt or the vitamin D added to cow’s milk or plant milk.

There is no need to fret about whether supplementation is “natural,” or whether a vegan diet is “unnatural” because it requires supplementation. As modern humans we are under no obligation to live as our ancestors did or to be nostalgic about their dietary habits. Some paleo enthusiasts and vegans alike seem equally sure what our ancestors ate and that it can be used as a nutritional guide today. The truth is that the human body is adaptable and that we can be healthy on a wide variety of diets. My only concern is what’s practical for my health, the health of the sentient beings around me, and the health of the world. Veganism is the only diet that has the virtue of looking out for more than just the individual’s health. If the price of admission is a few supplements, I’ll take that deal.

¹ For more detailed discussion of Omega-3s, see Jack Norris’s recommendations here or this study summary here.

² Messina, Ginny & Norris, Jack. Vegan for Life. Da Capo Press, 2011.

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