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Understanding Supplements: The Good, the Bad, and the Evil
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Understanding Supplements: The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

Supplements present a somewhat tricky subject. I know people who swear by a handful of various supplements daily, and I know those who deem it all a marketing gimmick and don’t want to hear a single argument. Throw veganism into the equation and you’re in for a ride. If you’re exhausted from having to explain that you get enough protein through diet, you’re not alone. But what makes the subject of supplementation complex is the fact that, although we may all fall under the vegan scope, we don’t necessarily live or eat the same. There’s a lot of room for exploitation because of this, and there are some key points to consider.

Vitamin B-12

You probably take B-12 supplements already, and you’re on the right path. This is the most common supplement among vegans because various studies point to a high risk of B-12 deficiency among vegans and vegetarians. A diet rich in various plant foods is not enough, and aside from supplements, B-12 fortified foods are a good addition to your diet. Keep in mind that it is best absorbed in small doses.  

Vitamin D

This is a fat-soluble vitamin that’s difficult to obtain through diet, and not just for vegans, but for everyone else. Mushrooms are the only reliable plant-based source of vitamin D, so that makes it pretty obvious how you can’t get enough of it through your diet. Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunshine, but most of us are not getting enough sunlight – you need about 30 minutes twice per week, and without using SPF crèmes because they block production. But many of us live in places with little sunshine, or we’d rather not go out into the sun without protection, so supplements are necessary. Fortified soy milk and almond milk are highly recommended.

Your lifestyle in relation to supplements

Basically, you can get everything else in adequate amounts from your diet. A common concern is omega-3 fatty acids which are most commonly found in fish. But there are vegan foods rich in omega-3. Nuts and seeds are the most prominent and they’re packed full of other nutrients, but if you have allergies, you’ll need supplements. This is the part where supplements are deemed “bad” if you’re replacing them with nutrient-rich foods you could eat. Calcium is another example, where it’s unnecessarily touted in supplements to vegans, but you get perfectly enough from various green vegetables and beans. If, however, your diet is not rich in these ingredients, you will need supplementation.

Supplements are, after all, not meant to replace a healthful and diverse diet. Most importantly, a wholesome, plant-based diet regulates dopamine levels, keeping you fresh, focused, and less prone to mood swings. But supplements are necessary for those of us who have trouble eating certain foods. It’s important to consider your eating habits as a whole to ensure you don’t need supplementation. Your level of physical activity also plays a part. Most physically active people, for example, up their magnesium intake to avoid leg cramps because it works as a muscle relaxant.

One thing for everyone to watch out for is caffeine intake because caffeine can increase the rate at which some minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are lost. It’s suggested to limit coffee consumption to a maximum of 3 cups daily and maintain adequate mineral intake to avoid adverse effects.

What to avoid

It’s clear by now that your need for supplementation largely depends on your diet and lifestyle, with the exception of vitamins D and B-12, which we all need. But if you self-diagnose and take too much of anything, naturally, any supplement will become harmful because you’re burdening your body, which now has to keep up to regulate excess amounts. Aside from this obvious fact, it’s important to know the difference between natural and synthetic supplements and avoid the synthetic ones using the provided guide. Some supplements may also have toxic ingredients such as stearic acid or Monosodium Glutamate, so do your research before choosing which supplement provider to trust, and always read the labels.

But how do you know if your dietary habits call for some supplementation? Although we have dietary guidelines, this gets confusing. You may feel symptoms of nutrient deficiency such as fatigue or changes in your hair and skin, but then again, you can’t be sure which nutrients you’re lacking in. It’s best to pay a visit to your doctor and do some blood tests so you can determine everything properly. That way you’ll be sure to avoid improper diagnosis. If you're able, consult with an expert and take it from there – see how to adjust your diet and whether there is any need for supplementation.

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