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Vegetarian? Vegan? Supplements For Plant-Based Eating
Dr. Joel Kahn, MD, is a cardiologist with a vegetarian bent. His philosophy? A well-balanced life leads to a healthy heart. "An ounce of wheatgrass is worth a pound of Lipitor!" he declares proudly. We agree, and love his balanced approach to eating, health, and life. Below, his research, and four supplements all well-intentioned vegans and vegetarians should be taking. Why Vitamins? Say you’re trying to eat right. Say you’re succeeding so well that your breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates all look like rainbows, bursting with whole food, plant-based choices. In that case, why would you ever consider also taking vitamins?
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It’s a hypothetical question that I’m frequently asked, and—believe it or not—I’ll often start my answer by pointing to a 1936 U.S. Senate report. “Ninety-nine percent of the American people are deficient in minerals and a marked deficiency in any one of the more important minerals actually results in disease,” it reads. Sure, we’ve come a long way in the past 80 years, but a lot of that progress has been in the wrong direction, thanks to the introduction of fast foods, GMO products, and major changes in farming techniques. Because Food Isn't What It Used To Be (Literally) Case-in-point: A medium-sized red apple you might buy at any major supermarket has on average 85 percent less magnesium than 75 years ago. Iron levels have dropped in spinach by over 35 percent in the last 20 years. The quality of soil used in conventional farming has deteriorated significantly since World War II. All of this is why, unless you’re eating all organic, all the time, taking a vitamin packed with natural sources of minerals including magnesium may be wise.
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Supplements are smart for other reasons, too. While I firmly believe that 100 percent plant-based, whole food menus are the healthiest overall, cutting down on animal products can make it tougher to get some key nutrients. Here, I’ve listed my top four supplements: 1. Vitamin B12 Important to brain, nerve, and hematologic health, this energy-boosting nutrient is a factor in a key process called methylation. Because animal products are much richer in B12 than are plant ones, I typically tell my vegan and vegetarian patients to take about 2,500mg of Vitamin B12 once a week, ideally in liquid, sublingual, or chewable form for better absorption. (You can also take 500mg daily if that schedule works better for you.) 2. L-carnitine This amino acid plays an important role in shuttling fatty acids across membranes to help fuel energy production. Because L-carnitine is found mainly in meat, vegetarians generally have lower levels of it in their muscles. For this reason, I often recommend that vegans supplement with 500mg a day, particularly for those who exercise a lot or who have heart disease. 3. Taurine Unless you’re an avid reader of energy drink labels, taurine’s probably something you haven’t heard much about. Yet it’s the most abundant amino acid in the body and important to everything from cardiac health and immune system function to electrolyte balance, insulin action, and hearing. It’s also a challenge for vegans to get, since it’s typically found in meat and seafood. My prescription? I generally suggest 1,000mg a day for someone who’s healthy and diabetes and heart disease-free. 4. Vitamin D3 Vitamin D has long been known to promote bone health, but now it’s proving to be essential to many more important functions, such as helping with blood pressure and blood glucose control, supporting the heart and the brain, and even enhancing mood. Direct sunshine on exposed skin for 20 to 30 minutes a day can often do the trick, but winter months and office jobs make that tough to achieve in the real world. Of course sunscreen is recommended to prevent wrinkles and dark spots, but this study shows little to no correlation between vitamin D absorption and sunscreen use. Routinely, 80-90 percent of my patients test low for this important nutrient. To bring them up to speed, I recommend between 2,000 and 4,000 IU of D3 each day. (Sometimes this is derived from animal sources such as lanolin, so if you’re vegan, check the label.)
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Scientific research has shown that plant-based, whole food, vegan diets reduce the risk of obesity, dementia, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, cancer, and much, much more. Incredible, right? To bring us back to that first hypothetical scenario, here’s the rest of my answer: When you’re doing so much good, take the extra step and get yourself to great with a few well-chosen, high-quality supplements. Image: Julija Steponaviciute for Harper's Bazaar March 2013