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Supplements have become very commonplace among athletes, but are they actually necessary for well-being and performance? Without animal foods in the diet, plant-based athletes may need certain supplements to bridge the gaps.
Here, we discuss the three most important supplements for a plant-based athlete, as well as four supplements you shouldn’t waste your money on. Plus, learn when you need a supplement and how to know if the brand you are choosing is safe and reputable.
When do you need a supplement?
The need for a supplement depends on a few factors. First, (and I would argue most important), a supplement should not replace eating healthy food. Nutrients should come from food first. The vitamins and minerals in food are absorbed more easily than those from pills.
Plus, every single food has more than one nutrient. A single piece of broccoli has Vitamin C, fiber, Vitamin K, potassium, protein, and antioxidants. Whereas a supplement usually only has one nutrient.
Second, the body can only absorb a certain amount of nutrients from a supplement. This is based on several factors. For instance, Vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning it only needs water to be absorbed and is easy for the body to digest. On the other hand, a fat-soluble vitamin, like Vitamin E, needs fat from food for optimal absorption.
Lastly, a supplement is only necessary if the diet doesn’t supply enough of a certain vitamin or mineral. In other words, a supplement can prevent or rectify a nutrient deficiency. Although some nutrients are harmless in large doses, others can be toxic if you take too much. Therefore, talk to your healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your routine.
What to look for in a supplement
Not all supplements are created equally. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the sale of supplements. Instead, they set forth Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP), which “assures the identity, strength, quality, and purity of drug products by requiring that manufacturers of medications adequately control manufacturing operations.”
The enforcement of CGMPs is basically an honor system. Although the FDA randomly checks facilities, some manufacturers go unchecked and distribute subpar products. There is no guarantee that what you see on the label is actually in the product.
Luckily, many supplement companies create clean products that undergo third-party testing. The company pays a third-party company to test its products and prove that the ingredients match the label. This ensures there are no heavy metals or additives in the supplement.
A company that has undergone third-party testing will have a seal on the label. Some of the seals include USP Verified, NSF Certified for Sport, BSCG Certified Drug Free, and Informed-Choice (or Informed-Sport). If you see these labels, rest assured that the product is reputable and worth buying.
Nutrients that you may not be getting on a plant-based diet
Now that you know whether or not you need a supplement and how to tell if a supplement is safe, it’s time to think about whether or not you should add one to your daily routine. If you follow a plant-based diet, you may be missing out on these nutrients.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient that is present in very few foods. It’s crucial for bone health, as it promotes the absorption of calcium and plays a large role in bone growth. Vitamin D is linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes and it may even boost your mood. Most adults need 15 mcg or 600 IU of Vitamin D per day.
The main source of Vitamin D comes from the sun. Because many people have limited exposure to the sun and everyone absorbs Vitamin D differently, most people suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency at some point in their lives. The main food sources of Vitamin D are eggs, fish, mushrooms, milk, and fortified plant-based milk. [Related: Mushroom Freezer Breakfast Burritos]
Some vegetarians may get enough Vitamin D from sun exposure, eggs, and milk. As a matter of fact, a study found that eating one egg per day may ward off Vitamin D deficiencies. But most vegans probably do not meet their daily Vitamin D needs, unless they eat a ton of mushrooms each day.
Ask your doctor to check your Vitamin D levels at your next visit. If they are low, take a 400 to 600 IU supplement each day.
Omega-3 is a type of fatty acid that may improve heart health, brain health, and mood. There are three types of omega: 3–alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is essential, meaning the body cannot make it and you need to get it through food. EPA and DHA are non-essential, so the body can make them in small amounts.
The good news is that most people eat plenty of ALA from plant-based foods, like walnuts, flax seeds, oils, soybeans, and hemp seeds. On the other hand, DHA and EPA are present in fish and algae. Vegans and vegetarians that don’t eat fish may miss out on DHA and EPA.
Why does this matter? Well, most of the beneficial research on omega-3 fats has been done on EPA and DHA. That’s why the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fish twice per week. But the good news is that vegan omega-3 supplements are made from algae oil.
These supplements are more expensive than fish oil, but it’s worth it since omega-3s have huge benefits. Their anti-inflammatory properties have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering blood pressure, and even possibly improving athletic performance.
You’ve likely heard other plant-based people talk about Vitamin B12. This nutrient plays an important role in red blood cell formation, DNA, nerve formation, energy for everyday functions, and glucose metabolism. The recommended daily dose of Vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg.
Unfortunately, Vitamin B12 is not in most plant-based foods. Animals make Vitamin B12 in their intestines, but plants are not able to synthesize this nutrient. Some plant-based foods, like plant-based milk, faux “meats”, and nutritional yeast are fortified with B12.
But if you don’t consume enough of these foods, there’s a good chance you aren’t meeting your daily needs. On the other hand, vegetarians that eat eggs and dairy may get enough B12 through those foods. [Related: Vegan & Vegetarian Sources of B12]
All vegetarians and vegans should be screened for a Vitamin B12 deficiency through a simple blood test. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that all vegans should take 250 mcg of Vitamin B12 supplement daily and vegetarians should consider taking 250 mcg of B12 supplement a few times per week.
You may be wondering why the supplemental recommendation is 100 times higher than the daily dose. Vitamin B12 is not absorbed well when taken orally. That’s why those who suffer from a deficiency often have to get injections. To get the amount you need, you have to take a very high dosage.
Supplements athletes don’t need
There are a ton of supplements on store shelves that are marketed toward athletes. Most of them are unnecessary and won’t help performance. Here are four supplements you shouldn’t waste your money on.
Do you know what your body needs before a workout? Carbs. And some caffeine doesn’t hurt either. Most pre-workout supplements contain a powder that is mixed into water. They contain a “proprietary” blend of ingredients that includes some combination of carbs, caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, taurine, and some other additives (yellow 5 anyone?).
The body gets energy for exercise from carbohydrates, and there are plenty of carbs in foods, like fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. The other additives to pre-workout powders are unnecessary and don’t add many benefits.
There is some research to show that pre-workout caffeine can boost performance, but you can get that from drinking coffee or tea. Skip the expensive supplements and eat and drink your pre-workout fuel.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs refer to three essential amino acids– leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research shows that BCAAs promote muscle growth, decrease soreness and increase powder, which is why they are soaring in popularity. BCAAs are popping up in everything from powders to protein drinks to water.
The research on the importance of BCAAs is sound, but there are other ways to get them besides supplements. As a matter of fact, BCAAs are naturally present in many foods, including tofu, quinoa, hemp seeds, and peanuts (and eggs and milk). That means you can get plenty of these important amino acids from food alone.
After a workout, eat a recovery meal that includes carbs and protein. Include one of the food sources of BCAAs in your diet throughout the day and ditch the supplement.
Iron is a mineral that helps transport oxygen throughout the blood. It’s important for blood flow and athletic performance. Many athletes, especially women and plant-based people, are deficient in iron. This is often due to menstrual blood loss and lack of iron in the diet.
So why do I say it’s not a necessary supplement? Many plant-based athletes assume they are deficient in iron and take a supplement without actually knowing their levels. Too much iron in the blood is dangerous. Taking an iron supplement when you don’t need one can be harmful.
If you think you have an iron deficiency, ask your doctor to check your levels. If they are low, you may need an iron supplement to prevent or manage a deficiency.
Multivitamins include more than 20 vitamins and minerals in each pill. The only problem is that most people don’t need more of many of these nutrients. For example, most Americans get plenty of B vitamins, Vitamin A and Vitamin C.
Your diet may be lacking in certain vitamins or minerals, like Vitamin D, magnesium or potassium. But you don’t need to take a multivitamin with more than 20 nutrients to obtain these few.
In addition, many people take a multivitamin as a catch-all, since they know their eating habits are less than ideal. You can’t undo a bad diet with a multivitamin. Save your money and eat a well-balanced plant-based diet instead.
The bottom line
Some supplements, like Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Omega-3, can be beneficial for plant-based athletes. They fill in the holes where a plant-based diet may not reach. Other supplements, like pre-workouts or multivitamins, are not worth your time and money. If you’re unsure what supplement is right for you, ask your healthcare professional. A simple blood draw can determine whether or not you are deficient in any nutrients.