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Do You Need Supplements on a Plant-Based Diet?


When you eat a whole foods, plant-based diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, you supply your body with loads of naturally-occurring vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that your body needs to perform it's basic functions, supply you with energy, and keep you healthy. These nutrients help your body reproduce healthy cells, sleep, repair, and perform every function it needs to do.

When you eat a very limited "diet," meaning you eat the same foods pretty much every day, you don't give your body the wide array of nutrients it needs to function and perform optimally. Over time, you can develop nutrient deficiencies which can affect your energy levels, hormone production, inflammation levels, ability to fight off bacteria, viruses, and pathogens, and much more.

The Standard American Diet (or SAD for short) is a perfect example of a nutritionally unbalanced diet. The majority of the food is processed, stripped of its nutrients, and sometimes fortified with synthetic versions of vitamins. It is often high in fat (refined and processed fats), sodium, processed carbohydrates and sugar. Over time, this can wreak havoc on the human body because there are not enough nutrients to protect it from the byproducts of digesting, storing and eliminating these foods, in addition to stress, and other unhealthy lifestyle factors.

This is where supplements come in.

By definition, a supplement is "something that completes or enhances something else when added to it."

A supplement is not intended to be a replacement for real food. It should only be taken to fill the nutritional void and then you stop taking it when that void is filled. A whole foods plant-based diet CAN provide all of the nutrients you need to be healthy. Except one. Sort of.

I'm going to get a little nerdy here about vitamin B-12, so if you want the short version, scroll down to the bottom for my recommendations.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency is often considered to be a vegan/vegetarian/plant-based diet problem. However, many omnivores are also deficient in Vitamin B-12. B-12 is formed by bacteria. Plants cannot make it and animals cannot make it in their cells. However, animals such as salmon, tuna, beef, lamb, and shrimp, get it from the foods they eat and can store it in their cells. This same B-12 forming bacteria exists in healthy soil and should be produced in our own healthy guts (at the end of the small intestine).

Emphasis on healthy.

Not all people can absorb all the B-12 they consume, so eating a meat-rich diet does not ensure adequate B-12 levels. In addition, cooking destroys up to half of it, and medications (such as antacids) and age can affect absorption. Studies have shown that most people over 50 years of age need to take a B-12 supplement.

But don't fret, you can still get your B-12 through the following suggestions:

1. Grow a garden with healthy soil and don't be afraid to munch on fresh veggies right out of the healthy soil, assuming they have not been sprayed with pesticides. You'll have to use judgment on that one.

2. Eat (edible) mushrooms and be ok with a little dirt on them.

3. Eat sprouts: alfalfa, broccoli, pea, etc. Those micro-greens have the same B-12 producing bacteria.

4. Add Nutritional Yeast to some of your meals. But read the label to make sure it has B-12 in it!

5. Keep your gut healthy and happy so it can produce its own B-12.

6. Take a high-quality B-12 supplement. The dosage really depends on your situation, but as a general recommendation, 2000-5000 mcg daily can help get you back on track. Look for a supplement without any (or as few as possible) extra fillers, sugars, additives, or extra ingredients. Also look for it in the form of methylcobalamin so that your body can more easily absorb it.

Alright, I'll get off my B-12 soapbox.

Apart from vitamin B-12, a whole foods plant-based diet can supply you with every nutrient you need.

And if you get outside and get out in the sun without sunscreen for at least 10 minutes a day, you'll get your daily dose of vitamin D as well. Just another reason to get outside and exercise!

In addition, the naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals in real, whole foods are more readily absorbed and utilized by your body. They come in just the right amounts and in just the right type of "packaging" with all the other factors needed for optimal use and absorption. Your body knows how to use real food.

A supplement in the form of a pill or powder is not the same as getting nutrients from real food. A supplement is an isolated substance (often in a synthetic form) and comes in such a minuscule amount compared to an entire plant-based meal made with a variety of whole foods with lots of vitamins and minerals interacting together. In addition, supplements often have binders, fillers, "flavoring," artificial sweeteners or sugar, and extra ingredients that your body does not recognize as food. It has to store them to protect your organs or expel them from your body.

Why pay for a bunch of things your body doesn't need or can't really use? Supplements are expensive. Invest in real food instead.

So HOW do you make sure you get all the nutrients you need?

I'm so glad you asked!

1. Eat the rainbow. Buy (or grow) colorful fruits and veggies. Each color has different health-promoting properties

Green - leafy greens, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, kiwi, honeydew, grapes, herbs (basil, dill, oregano, parsley, cilantro), etc.

Red- red peppers, radishes, tomatoes, red potatoes, apples, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, etc.

Blue/Purple- eggplant, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, etc.

Orange- carrots, orange peppers, pumpkin, yams, oranges, mango, papaya, cantaloupe, etc.

Yellow- yellow peppers, sweet potatoes, etc.

White- onions, potatoes, turnips, jicama, bananas, white grapefruit, etc.

2. Buy different fruits and veggies each week so you can rotate the many types, colors and shades. You don't need to eat 50 varieties of fruits and veggies every day or every week. Just rotate through the hundreds of varieties depending on what is available, what is in season, what is the least expensive, what you are craving, and what looks good.

3. Try different ways of preparing them so they taste good. Don't like raw brussels sprouts? Try steaming them or roasting them with some fragrant herbs and spices. Shave them into a salad or a stir-fry. I always find that my kids will eat WAAAY more veggies in a stir-fry, including many of the ones they "don't like." Sneak veggies into spaghetti sauce, smoothies, muffins, or pancakes. Get creative!

4. If you drink smoothies, don't make the same kind every day. Pick a different fruit and/or veggie to use each time. Google the ingredient you want to use and find some suggestions on what to pair with it!

5. Eat 2 different colors of fruit and/or veggies at every meal. My kids pack their own lunches and know that they need at least 1 fruit and 1 veggie in their lunch.

6. Eat your vegetables first before your "main meal." Better yet, make fruits and vegetables your main meal and use other foods as a side dish. I have made it a standard practice in our home to eat a salad or some sort of veggie while I finish cooking dinner. That way they always get something nutritious into their cute, little bodies.

All of these suggestions are good for any food. But fruits and vegetables are the most nutritionally-dense foods out there, so make them your focus. Fresh or frozen are the best options.

Of course, if you are truly suffering from a nutritional deficiency, talk with your doctor and have a nutritional panel done. Then supplement with only the vitamins or minerals that you need.

So here's the bottom line.

No, you really don't need supplements, and the best way to avoid taking expensive supplements is to eat a variety of whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) colorful fruits and veggies. There's a reason why your mama told you to eat your veggies! Buy the cheapest ones in season to save money. Freeze extras to cook later or add into smoothies.

Eating nutritionally dense foods does not have to be expensive. You can CHOOSE whether to spend your money on whole, nutrient-dense foods, or on expensive supplements that may or may not be absorbed into your system, or on expensive doctor bills later when problems arise. The choice is yours to make.

What are your tips or tricks of how to incorporate more fruits and veggies into your daily life?

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