Ask Gerda: What’s Your Nutritional Advice for Vegans and Vegetarians?
Ask Gerda: What’s Your Nutritional Advice
for Vegans and Vegetarians?
Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. And our wellness routines thank her for this. (Yours will, too. Send us your own questions for Gerda: [email protected].)
Dear goop, I’ve always felt that as a vegetarian, I have a healthier diet than most. But I’ve heard that vegans need to take supplements—is this true, and do I need to worry? —Andrea H.
Hi, Andrea. I’ll just start out by saying that I admire vegetarians and that if I were a really good person, I’d be a vegan. Vegetarian diets are health-promoting—and there are serious environmental and animal-welfare issues with animal products. But the answer to your question is yes. As a vegetarian you should evaluate whether a supplement or two might be helpful. I’m most concerned about vitamins B12 and D, and iron. Some vegetarians may also want to add omega-3 fats to their diets.
Vegans definitely need supplemental vitamin B12, but what’s less well known is that vegetarians may also benefit from some extra B12. This vitamin occurs naturally only in animal products. There have been reports of B12 in plant foods, but this is mostly inactive pseudo-B12. Chlorella may be a possible exception, but I wouldn’t be comfortable relying only on it at this point. Vegetarians rely on eggs and milk for their vitamin B12, but these foods don’t contain a lot, and there’s evidence that many vegetarians don’t get enough. This is especially important for vegetarians over fifty, when it’s common for absorption of this vitamin to go downhill. 🙁
Vitamin B12’s contributions are pretty important: It’s crucial for producing red blood cells—and without enough of them, you’ll feel tired and weak. We also need it for healthy nerves and for memory and learning. We store B12 in our liver—unlike other B vitamins—so a deficiency can take years to develop, and by then nerves may be permanently damaged.
It’s not obvious why iron would be a concern for vegetarians—those who eat a healthy diet—because beans and greens contain quite a bit. The problem is that iron from plant foods is poorly absorbed. You need iron, like B12, for red blood cells, strength, and energy. Fatigue due to low iron is a big problem for women and teens of reproductive age, because iron is lost with menstruation, especially with heavy periods. By one conservative measure, 14 percent of American women are low in iron.
You can optimize your iron absorption by including vitamin C (from fruits and veggies) with meals. Beware: Combining meals with calcium supplements or tea—green or black, not herbal—will block iron absorption. And antacids can interfere with absorption of both iron and vitamin B12.
Many women, even those who aren’t officially anemic, have more energy after taking iron supplements. Advanced Ferrochel from Source Naturals is an easy way to get both iron and B12. This product contains methylcobalamin, a premium form of B12, but I wouldn’t worry about the form too much—they all work.
Vitamin D is something that most of us, including vegetarians, need to worry about these days—at least those of us with desk jobs. Historically we’ve gotten most of our vitamin D not by eating it but by producing it (the D3 form) in our skin. Sunlight on bare skin makes this happen, and mushrooms are just like us in this way. They can also make vitamin D (the D2 form) if they’re grown outdoors or you give them a sunbath. I couldn’t believe it when I found out that you can just slice up three ounces of mushrooms, set them in the noonday summer sun, and in a little more than fifteen minutes, they can generate the Daily Value of twenty micrograms (800 international units).
If you and your mushrooms don’t spend much time outside, a vitamin D supplement may be a good idea. It’s added to some foods, but you’d need to drink five to ten cups of fortified beverages to get the bare minimum.
The vitamin D3 in most supplements comes from sheep’s wool lanolin, so vegans should look for vitamin D2 or for a rather rare vegan D3. My favorite new product from 2019 is The Base Layer—it contains vegan D3, together with a fern extract that helps neutralize free radicals generated by sun exposure. And it’s a delicious gummy.
Finally, a vegan diet won’t contain the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, which are valued for building brain and eye cells. Simris has perfectly combined DHA and EPA from algae with another omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid, from organic, cold-pressed flaxseed. ALA is an essential nutrient—meaning a diet without it can’t support life—and it’s needed for healthy skin. Also: Your body can use ALA to make DHA and EPA.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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