Yep, seven. Kind of a lot for a “whole foods” guy, right?
Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
Like a lot of people, I some big goals for the new year. But I’ve realized that in order to do more, my “operating system” needs to be better — which means upgrading my daily habits, and to pay particular attention to nutrition, since that affects just about everything else.
For several years now I’ve been careful to cover the bases: vitamin B12, vitamin D, and DHA/EPA, just to safeguard myself against common deficiencies of a vegan diet (and many other diets, too, by the way). But now I’m paying more attention to things like sleep, recovery from workouts, nagging injuries, and even long-term prevention — and because of that, I find myself both more diligent and more experimental with supplements.
Don’t worry, this isn’t the post where Matt turns into a biohacker. In general, my philosophy is still “whole foods first,” and probably always will be. (Not the store — in that case, it’s actually “Whole Foods second,” after we’ve gotten everything we can at a cheaper place!)
In fact, you’ll see that several of what I call “supplements” actually are whole foods; it’s just that I take them like a robot would take fuel. If robots ran on fuel.
So here goes. I’ve listed the daily dose I take next to each.
1. Complement (provides B12, D3, and DHA/EPA) — This one is actually a three-for. I’ve written about Complement at length, since it’s the supplement for vegans I created, so I won’t spend long on this one. In a nutshell, here’s why the nutrients it provides are so important:
Vitamin B12 (1000mcg) is just about a no-brainer for vegans. I know there are still a few purists out there who say we can get enough B12 from dirty produce, but I just don’t see the point. Even many non-vegans are deficient in B12, and when I didn’t take it in my first few years of being vegan, I experienced symptoms of deficiency. So I take it, and I make sure my kids do too.
Vitamin D3 (2000IU) is the best form of vitamin D, which our bodies make in response to sunlight. Unfortunately, the combination of our modern, indoorsy lifestyles (plus knowledge about the dangers of UV exposure) and a plant-based diet leaves many of us “D-ficient.” Dr. Greger and others recommend supplementing with 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, so that’s what I take.
Finally, DHA (300mg) and EPA (70mg) are two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain health. We can get ALA, which is another omega-3, from vegan foods like flax seeds and walnuts, so many vegans assume they’ve got omega-3’s covered. But it turns out that although some people can efficiently convert ALA into DHA and EPA, many cannot. I haven’t done the testing to know whether I or my wife and kids can, so that’s why I take it in supplement form, derived from algae.
You can learn more about Complement here, but see the note at the bottom of this blog post first.
2. Creatine (5g) — This is strictly for building muscle and increasing strength, so I only take creatine when I’m trying to bulk up or doing a strength sport. Creatine is an amino acid that our bodies do make, so it’s not essential. And although we’re completely fine without it, I find it absolutely helps me to build muscle, and the extra motivation that comes from that is reason enough to take it, given that it’s well-studied and appears to be completely safe. (There’s some evidence to suggest creatine helps vegetarians perform better on tests of memory, too.)
3. Magnesium (350mg) — As I mentioned in a recent podcast episode (“Matt’s Quest for Deeper Sleep”), lately I’ve been obsessed with increasing the amount of deep sleep I get each night, as measured by an OURA ring that tells me how much time I spend in each sleep phase.
I get plenty of total sleep, and plenty of REM sleep, but very little deep sleep (which, oddly, is not as “deep” as REM). Deep sleep is very important for tissue repair and recovery. I haven’t figured out whether my body just happens to need less deep sleep than others, or whether it’s something about my diet, lifestyle, and sleep habits that prevents me from getting more of it.
I’ve been experimenting with a lot of small changes, ranging from obvious ones — like eliminating light from my bedroom at night and limiting screen time after about 7pm — to making changes to my diet (especially around caffeine and alcohol) and supplementing.
Magnesium is a mineral that’s associated with improved sleep and helpful in the absorption of iodine (see below), so it’s a natural one to test.
I’ve only been taking magnesium for 10 days or so, but I suspect that it’s responsible for adding roughly 10 minutes of deep sleep each night. Which doesn’t seem like much, but when I typically only get 30 minutes or so, I’ll take whatever I can get!
Once I figure this shiz out, I’ll write a whole blog post about my sleep project.
‘Supplements’ that are Actually Food
4. Brazil nut (1 small one provides ~100mcg selenium) — We don’t need much selenium, but we absolutely need it. Selenium deficiency is linked to certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. And, thanks to soil depletion, most plant-based diets are low in selenium. Luckily, a single, small Brazil nut each day provides more than enough. So I eat one a day, in my smoothie, and selenium is taken care of.
(Incidentally, one of the reasons I love the daily smoothie is that it’s easy to toss in things like a Brazil nut, flax seeds, a slice of turmeric… things I want to eat each day but don’t show up in my diet on their own.)
5. Iodized salt (60mcg iodine per quarter-teaspoon salt) — Let’s be clear here, there’s no reason to supplement with salt; in fact we should limit our intake. It’s the iodine that I want; the fortified salt just happens to be a convenient way to get it.
Iodine used to be in our soil, but with modern agriculture, it’s less plentiful in our food than it once was. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that iodine deficiency affects two billion people (!) and is the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Which is why they put it in our salt. Except we vegans like to be natural, so many of us choose unrefined sea salt… which usually doesn’t have iodine added to it.
Non-vegans actually get some iodine from the cleaning products used in dairy processing equipment that make their way into the milk, so it’s less a concern for them. Vegans should make sure we have an iodine source, whether supplemental or with fortified salt.
6. Tart cherry juice (1oz concentrate or 8oz juice) — Tart cherry juice has been shown to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness after workouts, which is why I’ve been a fan for a long time.
Most days out of the week now, I do Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing, and get pretty beat up in the process. So I have a renewed interest in the benefits tart cherries provide.
I don’t like to drink any juice on a daily basis; in general the whole fruit is much better. But immediately after workouts is one time when juice may be one of the best things we can consume, for its speed in reaching the bloodstream. So that’s when I try to take my tart cherry juice, about an ounce a day.
7. Turmeric (1 tsp ground or a quarter-inch slice fresh) — Faddish, perhaps, but I think turmeric is legit. There’s a lot of research about how it can help with everything from muscle repair to recovering from hospital surgery, not to mention reducing the risks of cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Greger recommends either a quarter-teaspoon of ground turmeric or a quarter-inch slice of the fresh root daily. Fresh and ground actually do different things, so I try to mix them up, and almost always eat it in combination with black pepper to increase bioavailability.
If I don’t use ground turmeric in cooking or don’t add a slice of fresh to my smoothie, then at night I’ll take it in pill form (turmeric, not just curcumin). But I much prefer getting it in whole-food form.
Blurring the Food/Supplement Line
I actually could go further with the “foods I view as supplements” list, but there’s not a clear dividing line between these and the rest of my food.
For example, green tea. I don’t really drink it like tea: in order to extract the most nutrients, I steep it at close to boiling temperature and for much longer than the tea-types recommend, producing a drink far more tannic and bitter than green tea traditionally is. Or I’ll put the tea leaves directly into my smoothie, not for flavor but for nutrition. Similar to flax seeds — I don’t eat them as snacks like I do other nuts and seeds; instead I just add them to my smoothie because I know how healthy they are.
But I had to draw the line somewhere. So I did.
Believe it or not, there are two other supplements I believe I should be taking, but I am not, simply because it’s not convenient to take more pills and I’ve been lazy about it. These are zinc and vitamin K2, both of which are likely deficiencies in plant-based diets.
Zinc — Beans provide plenty of zinc; the problem is that the phytates in beans interfere with absorption. Zinc may be especially important for heart health, and given family history, this is important to me.
K2 — Vegans can get plenty of K1 from leafy greens, but K2 isn’t found in almost any plant-based foods, especially not in the West. (It is in natto, a Japanese, fermented soy product, but unfortunately not in tempeh, sauerkraut, or other fermented foods in reliable and appreciable amounts.) K2 is important for both bone and heart health, so not something I want to be missing.
To the Rescue…
An upgraded version of Complement, called Complement Plus — our vegan multivitamin — is now available.
It’s in capsule form instead of a spray, and for me will drastically simplify my supplementation routine, not just by filling the zinc and K2 void, but also by providing iodine, selenium, magnesium (all of which I’m currently making the effort to get into my diet), and of course the “Big 3” that are already in Complement.
So check it out, and upgrade your operating system! Let’s make this year a great one.