Everyone, it seems, wants to know about supplements. After almost every talk I’ve given, someone in the Q&A has asked, “What supplements do you take?”
After my talk at the Marshall Healthfest last month, someone asked it.
And when we did a Q&A with Rich earlier this week inside the NMA Academy (reopening soon, stay tuned!), someone asked it there, too.
The main reason I haven’t written a post about supplements until now is that I’ve never taken many, and was inconsistent even with the ones I did take.
But as I’ve learned more about the plant-based diet over the years, I’ve become more regimented in my routine, and come to give greater importance to the few supplements that I take. And as the question has come up more and more, I think it’s a time for a post about supplements, in far more depth than time allows in the Q&A after a talk.
So here’s what I do — and what I used to do, but stopped — when it comes to supplements.
But first, understand: Your needs certainly might be different from mine, so don’t assume that because I take (or don’t take) something, you need to do the same. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or registered dietitian, so talk to a real one about supplementation. I merely hope this post gives you a place from which to start asking questions.
3 Supplements I Used to Take
1. Protein powder
A lot of people are surprised to hear that I don’t use protein powder anymore.
Protein powder is tricky. When so many people wonder “Where do you get your protein?“, it’s clearly an opportunity for someone to make money. And so vegan supplement companies promote it like crazy, which perpetuates the idea that if we don’t take a protein supplement, something awful will happen.
But when I was training for my 100-miler back in 2013, I happened to run out of protein powder. And, partly out of laziness, partly out of a growing skepticism, I didn’t buy more.
A week passed. Then a month. Then two months. I didn’t die.
Then I ran my 100-miler, and still didn’t die. It’s been almost two years since then, and I’m still alive and kicking!
I don’t fault the supplement companies for selling protein powder, when so many people clearly want it. Nor do I think it’s completely useless: If time constraints prevent you from eating a diet based on whole foods (which have all the protein you need), then protein powder is a fast and convenient way to get a little more.
It’s also useful as a psychological crutch. If you’re new to a vegetarian or vegan diet and your friends are telling you you’re being weird and reckless with your health, the reassurance that you’re “getting enough protein” just by adding a few scoops of powder to your smoothie is priceless.
And it’s possible that the optimal diet for certain strength sports, say, bodybuilding or mixed martial arts, consists of more protein than the 10-12 percent of total calories that a diet based on whole foods can offer. In those cases, protein powder is again useful.
If you’re going to use protein powder, I’ll offer one important suggestion: Stick with a minimally processed form, so that your protein powder is as close to a whole food as possible. No isolates — it turns out that protein isolates and even complete plant proteins (those containing all the essential amino acids, like soy protein isolate) are likely to raise levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), the hormone commonly cited as a primary link between animal protein and common cancers when its levels are too high in adults.
2. Flaxseed oil
Back in college when I was heavy into weightlifting and trying to bulk up, I started adding flaxseed oil (or Udo’s blend) to my smoothies and protein shakes. Mainly, this was to add calories and omega 3 fatty acids to my diet.
And it worked! As soon as I embraced dietary fats instead of avoiding them, my weight shot up, and a lot of it was muscle. Even after I was past this testosterone-filled phase of my young adult life, I kept the oil in my smoothie, thinking of it as a health food.
As I’ve moved towards a diet based more and more on whole foods — and oil is decidedly not a whole food — I no longer think of oil as a health food. More than simply not adding it to my smoothie anymore, I’ve recently removed it entirely from my everyday diet: at home, we no longer cook with olive or coconut oil, and instead simply use water for sauteing.
Why? It’s a topic for another post, but in short, the caloric density is unbelievably high compared to even the fattiest whole foods you’ll find in nature — oil contains 4,000 calories per pound, compared to around 100 calories for most vegetables. And if you’re concerned about protein, you can immediately do better by removing the single food in your diet that packs the largest number of calories per ounce, calories that are completely free of protein, making more room for the rest of the foods in your diet, those whole foods that do contain protein. The same goes for most micronutrients, too. (More about my decision to stop eating oil in the March 26, 2015 episode of No Meat Athlete Radio, here.)
I’m not anti-oil. Just like with protein powder, it has some targeted uses (not least of which, for me, is a gourmet restaurant meal now and then). If you’re looking to bulk up, sure, add oil to your diet for a little while. But as an everyday food for a typical person, I think it does more harm than good.
3. Creatine monohydrate
Creatine has always held a fascination for me, dating back to when I was a skinny kid and it was billed (by my friends) as a miracle supplement for bulking up.
When I used it in college, the results lived up to the hype. To this day, when I get too thin from running (not unhealthily thin; I just prefer not to look that way), I like to spend a few weeks in the gym putting some pounds back on, and when I do, I sometimes take creatine to help … and it certainly does.
Since most of the creatine human beings get (beyond what our bodies make) comes from meat, is it possible that, like vitamin B12 (see below), vegetarians and vegan benefit by adding it back in the form of a daily supplement? I haven’t seen enough evidence to go that far, especially because the long-term effects of creatine supplementation still aren’t completely known.
Creatine is interesting to me, but I’ll wait for more research before I start using it on any sort of consistent basis.
The Only 2 Supplements I Take Now
1. Multivitamin, including vitamin B12
To me, vitamin B12 is a no-brainer. If you’re vegan, take B12. You can read more about why in this post.
But you can find standalone B12 supplements, apart from an entire multivitamin. So why the multi?
I’m all for whole foods, and with a wide variety I think you can usually get most of what you need. But as a safeguard, I like to take a multivitamin. Aside from the fact that the poor quality of modern soil and other modern agricultural practices make the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables lower than those we evolved to eat, there are several nutrients that are commonly deficient in 100% plant-based diets:
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 fatty acids
(These are according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book Super Immunity, one of my favorite books to recommend as a relatively easy-reading introduction to whole food, plant-based nutrition.)
I should point out that mega-doses can be dangerous. Even vitamins which were long thought to be safe in high doses have turned out not to be; as an example look at vitamin A, which has been linked in large doses to cancer.
The multivitamin I take is (not coincidentally) from Dr. Fuhrman, and it contains all of these except omega 3’s, which are in the other daily supplement I take. The multivitamin contains other vitamins and minerals as well, from quality sources and in relatively small doses — both of these are so important, to limit the chance that your multivitamin does more harm than good.
2. DHA/EPA (Omega 3’s)
My understanding of omega 3’s is that they comprise three types of fatty acid: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
People are commonly deficient in all of these, but ALA is easy to get in walnuts, seeds (hemp, flax, chia), and leafy greens. This, plus the general link between nuts and longevity, is the reason I add most of these to my smoothie each morning.
But DHA and EPA are harder to find in plant foods. And it turns out that although some people’s bodies are able to convert ALA into DHA and EPA in sufficient amounts, others cannot.
For this reason, I add a small amount of DHA/EPA supplement (vegan, derived from algae) to my smoothie each morning. Apparently, a blood test can determine whether your body is capable of converting enough ALA into DHA and EPA, but I haven’t done this test so I take it (and give it to my kids, as well) to be safe.
So there you have it. But for all I’ve learned about supplements over the years, the biggest lesson is that they generate a lot of discussion (and often, disagreement)!
The comments section is the place for that, as long as it’s friendly and productive. Let me know what you agree with and what you don’t, and what supplements you take (or don’t!), so we can all learn something from the discussion.