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Best Vegan Supplements in 2021

Posted on January 15, 2021

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Vegan popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, with people turning to purely plant-based diets for a number of reasons, such as ethical, nutritional and environmental.

 

Around 2.5 million Australians follow vegetarian diets or something close to it, with around 500,000 people following a strict vegan diet.

 

With so many turning to long-term vegan diets, the question that eventually arises is do I need to supplement?

 

And if you’re into preventative health, this is a topic that may draw your attention even before adopting a vegan diet.

 

For some, however, the thought of supplementation might only come about down the track after jumping on a vegan diet for a while to see how you go.

 

However, without supplementation or food planning, many decline in health around the one or two year mark, as fatigue, mood changes and cognitive issues can come into play for some.

 

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It's this important nutrient called Vitamin B12 that takes time to deplete from the body.

 

B12 is primarily stored in the liver as adenosylcobalamin—it’s water-soluble and it’s stored in the body, so it must be an important nutrient, right?

 

A liver with decent levels of stored B12 can sustain our needs for around a year or two in most people, even if dietary and supplemental intakes are low. However, ideally supplemental or dietary B12 would never drop anywhere near the RDI.

 

More on B12 later. And this is just one of the many nutrients that can become depleted on a vegan diet.

 

This isn't to put a negative spin on vegan diets. It simply about being realistic.

 

It’s not just vegan diets anyway ...

 

It’s all diets.

 

What does this mean?

 

Adopting any new dietary strategy will create some nutritional limitations. And these are worth some consideration. Often, it takes time to deplete body stores of a nutrient, which can create a false sense of security in the early stages of a new eating program.

 

In the case of B12, sometimes up to 2 years!

 

Most dietary strategies create limitations in nutrient availability. This is inherent in any dietary approach wherein certain foods are included, to the limitation or exclusion of other foods.

 

It’s the nature of the beast.

 

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This article isn’t about telling you that you have to supplement. What you need to supplement with, if anything, is entirely up to you.

 

But it can take some serious research to uncover the facts. And this can be mind-boggling if you don't have a Masters or doctorate in nutrition.

 

Hopefully this article can bring to the forefront of your attention some nutrients that are worth keeping an eye on, so you can experience the very best of health during your vegan eating program.

 

After all, nutrition is a topic best not left to chance. And vegans need to be supported, right?

 

Those soft-hearted, warm folk who put animals before themselves; or perhaps the environment ... or the plethora of others reasons people turn to veganism.

 

So good luck on your plant-based quest. Hopefully this article delivers some interesting information that helps you along the path to vegan wellness, optimal health, without having to sacrifice exercise performance or body composition.

 

Vitamin B12

The synthetic form of B12 is called cyanocobalamin. This is found in many supplements, such as iron formulas and multivitamins.

 

The natural forms of B12 are methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin and hydroxocobalamin. The methyl form of B12 is being added more and more to supplements, given that it is natural and bioactive.

 

Vitamin-B12-Tablets.jpgThe adult RDI for Vitamin B12 is 2.4mcg, which may seem like a tiny amount when comparing it to standard supplement levels, which can contain as much as 1,000mcg per dose!

 

But remember, the RDI is the minimum amount of a nutrient required to prevent deficiency diseases for most healthy people. The RDIs are typically a little above a survival level of a nutrient.

 

The optimal amount of a nutrient is likely much higher than the RDI. After all, what are the odds that the most miniscule amount of a nutrient required to prevent serious illness just happens to be the ideal quantity to support optimal health and performance?

 

I’m not a gambler, but I definitely wouldn’t bet on it.

 

Odds aside, all the clinical research points towards higher levels of essential nutrients for optimal health and chronic disease prevention.

 

Vegan diets can provide enough Vitamin B12 to meet daily demands. Though it takes planning and discipline, because certain sets of foods need to be consumed each week in specific quantities.

 

Otherwise B12 status will fall behind.

 

There’s a fine line between supplements and foods too. For instance, dried and powdered algae is considered a supplement, though dried and pressed seaweed is typically considered a food.

 

Neither are in their natural state however. Fresh seaweed is hard to find and few but the most hard-core vegans would be willing to eat fresh algae, given that they are able to grow or source the right type.

 

So what would you have to eat in order to obtain at least the RDI from vegan foods for Vitamin B12? Let’s take a look …

 

                                         Vegan Bioavailable Vitamin B12 Sources

 

B12 Content per 100g

% Adult RDI (2.4mcg)

Tempeh (Fermented Soybean)

0.7-8.0mcg

50g Serve Provides 0.35-4mcg (0.15-167% RDI)

Dried Shitake Mushrooms

5.6 mcg

5g Provides 0.28mcg (11.7% RDI)

Dried Nori Sheets (Red Algae Poryphyra sp.)

77.6 mcg

Two Sheets (6g) Provides 4.7mcg (196% RDI)

Chinese Nori

60.2 mcg

Two Sheets (6g) Provides 3.6mcg (150% RDI)

Chlorella (green algae) Content is much higher in Chlorellapyrenoidosa species than in Chlorella vulgaris

 

2 gram Serve Provides 41.4mcg (1,725% RDI)

(Average figure. Species and brand dependent)

 

Consuming the richest and most dependable sources of vegan B12, which are Nori and Chlorella, on a daily basis would offer significant B12 support for the vegan eater.

 

The easiest option of course is to obtain a supplement containing methylcobalamin with a standardized content that you know will bolster your system.

 

The difficulty with food sources is not that they can’t provide sufficient B12. It’s that they are variable. That is, there is no set B12 level per single dose of chlorella.

 

As the table shows they vary considerably. The Nori figures will differ, which isn’t represented in the table, though perhaps with less variability.

 

If you want to obtain all your B12 from dietary sources, it’s definitely worth understanding the signs and symptoms of deficiency.

 

This way as you walk the path of complete veganism you can keep an eye out for some of the indicators, if they appear.

 

Vegan Zinc Sources & the Immune System

Perhaps this year more than ever before, the public is becoming increasingly interested in a mineral called zinc.

 

It’s not surprising, given that zinc does profound things for the human immune system and also directly interferes with viral replication, making it an immune booster and an antiviral.

 

Fusion-Zinc-Tablets.jpgSure the dosages for zinc in these instances are well beyond that which would be obtained from a zinc rich diet, unless you’ve got a spare hundred dollars a day lying around and you like the taste of oysters.

 

On a brief side-note, zinc is a natural ionophore, inhibiting viral replication in infected cells. The trick is getting this mineral into the cells in sufficient concentrations to make a real difference.

 

There is an anti-malaria medication that does this quite effectively, though there is some evidence to suggest that there are range of natural ionophores, such as Quercetin, EGCG and Curcumin, that can also bolster intracellular zinc levels.

 

Zinc also promotes leukocyte synthesis and activity, promotes wound healing, literally offering hundreds of benefits for the human body.

 

Zinc has not been quite as well studied in vegan diets, with a small amount of research focusing on vegetarian diets, which include eggs, a rich source of this mineral.

 

The little research available is indicating caution with zinc status for vegans. This is due to the increasing consumption of nutrient inhibitors in the vegan diet which interfere with zinc absorption, such as phytic acid.

 

In addition, many zinc rich foods are animal based, such as red meat, eggs, shellfish and dairy.

 

The best zinc rich foods to target on a vegan diet are vegan-friendly dark chocolate, cashews, sesame seeds and pepitas. Cashew cheese and tahini paste could be good items to keep handy.

 

Creatine

These dipeptides and tripeptides are often overlook as unimportant, perhaps because there is no established RDI for anything other than an amino acid.

 

But we want to do more than survive, don’t we? Ideally, we’ve got enough energy to get us through the day, prevent chronic disease where we can and meet our exercise goals.

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These unique peptides, naturally found in a wide-range of muscle meats and collagens, offer some profound benefits for human health.

 

If you’re full vegan and not at all into bodybuilding, then Creatine may not be at the top of your shopping list.

 

However, evidence is accumulating fast for some quite amazing benefits for creatine, in terms of mood and cognition.

 

The human body produces around 1 gram of creatine per day, while omnivores consume around 1-2 grams per day from daily diet.

 

This means supplementation of a mere ¼ tsp of creatine daily should put you in alignment with most omnivores. However, if you really want to ramp up the benefits, try 5 grams daily.

 

And if you’re a 100kg plus athlete, aim for somewhere between 5-10 grams daily to keep your muscle stores (and brain) topped up.

 

Apart for the obvious ergogenic benefits of creatine, supported by decades of research and hundreds of studies, creatine is a nootropic.

 

Creatine has been shown to boost memory and intelligence and enhance mood in resistant depression. Not bad for a mere bodybuilding supplement …

 

References

Roitman S et l. Creatine monohydrate in resistant depression: a preliminary study. Bipolar Disorders. 2007 Vol 9;7 p.754-758

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17988366

Rae C et al. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings. Biological Sciences. 2003 Vol 270;1529 p.2147-2150

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/

Candow D.G., et al Variable Influencing the Effectiveness of Creatine Supplementation as a Therapeutic Intervention for Sarcopenia. Frontiers in Nutrition 2019.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2019.00124/full

 

Carnitine

This nutrient is most commonly associated with weight loss. Yet it is important for so much more!

 

acetyl-l-carnitine.jpgAs with creatine, dietary intakes are zero on a vegan diet. This has been shown in research indicating that vegans and vegetarians have lower carnitine levels despite the fact that the human body does synthesize it (with adequate dietary protein).

Krajcovicova-Kudlackova M et al. Correlation of carnitine levels to methionine and lysine intake. Physiological Research. 2000 Vol 49;3 p.399-402

 

L-Carnitine not only promotes modest fat-loss, but offers antioxidant benefits, promotes energy and stamina, supports mood and even enhances lean muscle gain in older adults.

 

And then there’s Acetyl L-Carnitine with an absolute plethora of benefits, including natural anti-depressant, neuroprotective, reduced mental fatigue and improved sleep.  

 

This really is one of those nutrients that you can supplement daily for a range of benefits, which seem to be more pronounced the older we are.

 

References

 

Malaguarnera M et al. Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALC) treatment in elderly patients with fatigue. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2008 Vol 46;2 p.181-190

 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167494307001069?via%3Dihub

 

Vermeulen RCW & Scholte HR. Exploratory open label, randomized study of acetyl and propionylcarnitine in chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychosom Med 2004 Vol 66;2 p.276-282

 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15039515/

 

Traina G. The neurobiology of acetyl-L-carnitine. Frontiers in Bioscience, 2016 Vol 1;21 p.1314-1329.

 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27100509

 

 

Beta-Alanine

Research shows that muscle carnosine levels are lower in vegans than omnivores. Fortunately, Beta-Alanine (rate-limiting precursor) enhances carnosine levels quite efficiently.

 

Beta-Alanine supplementation may only be important if you are looking to enhance exercise performance, specifically high-intensity exercise, such as CrossFit or HITT.

 

Exercises typically lasting greater than 60 seconds, as well as aerobic exercise are also believed to benefit from 4-6 grams Beta-Alanine supplementation daily, in multiple divided doses to prevent excessive tingling.

 

Hydroxylated Amino Acids

What the heck are these, you might be asking? Essentially, these are non-essential amino acids that may have important effects on a range of body tissues, including bone, collagen, muscle and more.

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Primarily, hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine are worth keeping an eye on. Yes, with a quality diet containing enough protein and vitamin C, these will be synthesized from proline and lysine, respectively.

 

These two hydroxylated amino acids become particularly important if engaged in regular heavy weight lifting and with age. The stress that heavy weight training, such as strength training and strongman lifting, places on tendons and ligaments is quite enormous.

 

This is when some additional nutritional support, like hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine, in addition to supplements like glycine, glucosamine and MSM, can be extremely handy.

 

Supplementing with Vitamin C or ensuring a high daily intake through food, along with ample bioavailable protein, is a great way support the synthesis of these two amino acids.

 

Carob seeds and alfalfa sprouts are believed to be vegan sources of hydroxyproline. Alternatively, this specialized form of proline is available in supplemental form with a range of essential amino acids to ensure you’ve got a solid daily intake.

 

Iron

This is often the first nutrient recognized by the public as potentially problematic when following a vegan diet, especially for female athletes with heavy monthlies.

 

Iron is an essential mineral required for a range of functions, such as hemoglobin and myoglobin production and tissue oxygenation, neurotransmitter synthesis in the brain, enzymes and much more.

 

It is well known that the richest dietary sources of iron are red meat, however there are plenty of iron rich foods on a vegan diet, such as soyabean products, lentils, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, dried apricots and leafy green vegetables.

 

Plant-Based Protein Powder

Though this topic has been well covered in a couple of Sporty’s Health blog articles, to hit this area briefly, we can simply say that it does become more difficult to obtain quality bioavailable protein from a vegan diet.

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This is simply due to the fact that many of the higher quality protein foods on a vegan diet, such as nuts and whole grains, tend to contain high quantities of fats and carbohydrates, respectively.

 

And though legumes provide ample protein, they can be difficult to digest and are more difficult to make palatable. In addition, the protein quality is lower than non-vegan foods, such as eggs and fish.

 

Fortunately, there are plant-based proteins available to help you meet your daily needs. Though there is always a new plant protein on the shelf of your local store, pea and rice protein powders have the best scientific evidence behind them.

 

Pea and rice protein blends are also quite palatable and come in a wide range of delicious flavours to enjoy in smoothies, shakes, baking and more.

 

Conclusion

Any and every diet, by definition, contains some nutritional differences which are worth consideration.

 

Vegan diets are no different, excluding products of animal origin, which limits the intake of certain sets of nutrients. This article has covered some of these, though choline, EPA, DHA, calcium, cholesterol and even saturated fatty acids may be worth some further research and consideration (in that order too).

 

The net effect of a well-planned diet, whether it’s vegan or not, is to enjoy nourishing meals and to use supplementation if necessary to ensure nutritional deficiencies don’t develop over time.

 

Header Image Background Courtesy of Graphictwister and FreePik.

 

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