Evidence-Based Nutrient Recommendations

Can a Natural Diet Require Supplements?

by Jack Norris, RD

If we admit that vegans need fortified foods or supplements to obtain vitamin B12, are we also admitting that a vegan diet is unnatural?

In Western society today, it’s easy for vegans to ensure an adequate B12 intake. Vegans who supplement with B12 can have superior B12 status to non-vegetarians who don’t supplement.

In fact, due to a decrease in the ability to absorb B12 from animal foods as people age, the Food and Nutrition Board says that all people over age 50 should meet their RDA mainly by consuming foods fortified with B12 or a B12-containing supplement.

One thing that separates us from our prehistoric ancestors is that we live a lot longer and poor B12 status has more time to become an issue. Whereas people might have gotten by with less B12 in the past, we need more now to ward of dementia caused by long-term B12-deficiency in old age.

Another point to consider is that humans could get substantial amounts of B12 from insects and other bugs if we didn’t want to resort to killing vertebrate animals or eating their eggs or milk.

And feces contains large amounts of B12, produced by bacteria in the colon. If we found ourselves with somewhat less technology, and still wanted to be vegan, we could get enough B12 from feces, though it would be important to make efforts to sanitize it. Admittedly, that’s not terribly appetizing.

Is the Vegan Diet Natural?

So is the vegan diet natural?

To answer that question, I recommend an article that examines the subject in great detail, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology Brought Up to Date: Are Humans Natural Frugivores/Vegetarians, or Omnivores/Faunivores? by Tom Billings. After an extensive review of the research, Billings concludes that humans are not naturally vegetarians or vegans. Despite this, he says:

You really don’t need the naturalness claim to be a vegan or vegetarian! That is, moral/spiritual reasons alone are adequate to justify following a vegan/vegetarian diet (assuming the diet works for you, of course). Further, if the motivation for your diet is moral and/or spiritual, then you will want the basis of your diet to be honest as well as compassionate. In that case, ditching the false myths of naturalness presents no problems; indeed, ditching false myths means that you are ditching a burden.

Readers may also be interested in the article Humans are Omnivores, adapted from a talk by John McArdle, PhD.

Whose Diet is Really Natural?

I’m grateful to my ancestors for surviving lives that were nasty, brutish, and short so that I can type away for hours each day on my MacBook. I’ve already outlived them while eating mostly food they wouldn’t recognize, and eating fortified foods and supplements as both a child and as an adult.

The idea that a prehistoric diet can be approximated today or that it would be the most optimal diet is really questionable. Today’s commercial plant foods and meats are different from the foods available in prehistoric times. We eat hybrids of plants and we feed foods to farmed animals that they wouldn’t normally eat. Farmed animals are typically given a wide range of supplements in their feed. The U.S. food supply is routinely fortified with a host of vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin D in milk), and most people who turn to what they consider to be a more natural diet as adults have often benefited from this supplementation. In the last two hundred years, nutrition science has solved all sorts of serious health problems that plagued humanity for eons.

I strive to be like my prehistoric ancestors in no way whatsoever. Although there are exceptions, eating meat is one of the few things which most people try to do that is “natural.” Paleolithic dieters are probably the most vocal, anti-vegetarian, natural eaters. Yet they rarely eat insects, grubs, and worms which, according to Paleoveganology in his post What, No Bugs?!, “have long provided humans and other primates with nutrients, and continue doing so today in most parts of the world.” [Blog is no longer online.]

Future of Research on Vegans

Many vegans are understandably skeptical of the medical and scientific communities. But by refusing to accept the scientific evidence in favor of the need to supplement with B12, we provide a steady flow of vegans with health issues for the medical community to study. If you’re wary of the medical community, the best thing you can do is ensure that you don’t develop B12 deficiency and become one of their subjects.

While I’m grateful that research has been done on vegans who do not supplement with B12, enough is enough. It’s the vegan community’s responsibility to stop this flow of research subjects. When researchers decide to do studies examining the health problems of vegans who don’t supplement their diets with B12, it would be best if they simply couldn’t find any.

Encourage New Vegans to Get B12

All vegan advocates should be aware of the symptoms of overt B12 deficiency—while also realizing that mild B12 deficiency could also lead to problems over time that are not as obvious. New vegans should be encouraged to start ensuring a B12 source shortly after becoming vegan or near-vegan.

Last updated September 2019

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  • If you have a question about whether it's okay to cut supplements in half or combine supplements to achieve the dose we recommend, the answer is “Yes.” Be aware that nutrient recommendations are only estimates—it's not necessary to consume the exact amount we recommend every single day.
  • We aren't able to respond to questions about which brands of supplements to take.
  • We cannot provide personal nutrition advice for specific health conditions. If you need private counseling, here's a list of plant-based dietitians and we especially recommend VeganHealth contributor Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN.
  • We urge you to consult with a qualified health professional for answers to your personal questions.