Should we take probiotics?


Probiotics always seem to be a topic of interest among health-conscious individuals.

Most of us have at least heard of probiotics, and maybe we have even tried a few products containing them when we have gotten some type of cold or other sickness (because that’s what your neighbor told you to do, or your friend’s friend has suggested it, or because you googled probiotic and the first website you read claimed probiotics are the ‘real-deal’). But I often wonder if we really understand what a probiotic is. What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? And should we really trust either one? I’ve learned about these two forms of bacteria in some of my classes, I’ve done some information gathering, and I hope to clear some things up.

First things first. Let’s talk bacteria. Our gastrointestinal tract is made up of hundreds of different species of “good” bacteria, also known as our body’s microflora. This bacteria helps our body metabolize nutrients, vitamins, drugs, hormones, and carcinogens; fight against intruders; prevents pathogens from colonizing; protects us against allergies and immune disorders; and regulates our immune system (1,2). These functions of the gut flora help our body’s to function properly and prevent disease-causing bacteria (AKA the “bad” bacteria) from taking hold. Our diet and lifestyle affects the types of bacteria that live in our gut. A healthy, nutrient-dense diet helps promote the growth of the good bacteria; an unhealthy diet consisting of refined sugar and animal fat, low fiber, and antibiotic use promotes the bad bacteria. This is where probiotics and prebiotics come into play. People frequently believe their diet can be “fixed” with supplementation, including probiotics.

I find that the definition of probiotics is often confusing, but Dr. Joel Fuhrman explains it best:

“The term probiotics is used both for the beneficial bacteria that are native to our intestinal tract and for supplemental live bacterial organisms that are thought to be beneficial when ingested. However, the (limited) bacteria in supplemental probiotics and fermented foods are not the same as the indigenous bacterial flora that live in the gut. Supplemental probiotics serve a beneficial role–but mostly when the normal native bacteria have been harmed or removed with antibiotic use or perverted with a diet of sweets and processed foods (1).”

He goes on to explain that it can take months to reestablish the good microflora and that a healthy diet needs to be maintained in order to do so. Probiotic bacteria that come from supplements drop within days when supplementation stops. This begins to explain why a healthy diet is the most important factor in promoting the right type of bacteria in our gut–not occasional probiotic supplementation.

There are many studies that have been done regarding probiotics, but the evidence is mixed when it comes to its effectiveness (1). For this reason more research needs to be done before we can proclaim that probiotics are the real deal. That being said, there are a few conditions that have been shown to benefit most from probiotics, including antibiotic associated diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (2). For more information regarding probiotics, check out Dr. Fuhrman’s article: What are probiotics?).

So, why is a healthy diet the most important factor in promoting the good bacteria? The good bacteria (and even probiotics themselves), feed off of non-digestible carbohydrate sources, resistant starch and fibers coming from vegetables, fruit, and legumes. These types of food act as prebiotics, which support the growth and activity of the good bacteria. They are found in foods like onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, artichokes, oats, and bananas (2,3). It is not necessary to eat fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir to have beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract (1). A whole-food diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes (AKA a high fiber, resistant starch and carbohydrate diet consisting of natural prebiotics) will provide enough of the favorable bacteria in our gut to keep us healthy and functioning at our best.

Probiotics may be helpful for some people under certain conditions, but I hope more research is completed in the future so we can determine their safety and effectiveness. As of right now, the evidence regarding the benefits of prebiotics from whole, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables is our best bet when we want to keep our good bacteria in check. When you’re feeling sick, think about how your diet has been over the last few months or even the last few weeks. Are you fueling your microflora with healthy foods (prebiotics), or are you encouraging the growth of the “bad” bacteria?

This photo comes from


This is a really good video video from regarding probiotics and prebiotics.

  1. Furhman, Joel. Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body’s Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free. Harper One. 2012. pp. 89; 151-153. Print.
  2. “Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits.” MDPI. Web.:
  3. “Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits.” MDPI. Web.:
  4. “Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits.” MDPI. Web.

Top 7 Nutrients Vegans May Need to Supplement

Nutrients Vegans May Need to Supplement

One of the most common questions I receive (after, “How do you get your protein?”) is, “Do you take supplements? and “Don’t vegans need to supplement to get all your nutrients?”

I have been vegan 18 years (vegetarian 26 years) and during that time I have heard so much conflicting information from different people and groups. Most information had had very little, unbiased, conclusive research to back it up. Only recently has scientific data started to be published on the subject. Upon learning about this new research, I went from taking only B-12, to adding 5 more nutrients to my list of supplements that I feel I may need.

My base reason for maintaing a vegan diet is, and always has been my strong belief that it is not okay to harm, kill, or exploit animals for any reason. I mention this now because personally, no matter what the scientific data tells us, I will remain vegan until the day I die because I want my actions to match my values.

That being said, my mission in life, in addition to changing the way our culture views and treats animals and the environment, includes helping humans live the healthiest, happiest lives possible. The awesome thing about this is that we can achieve all three components of my mission with one solution… a well-balanced, whole foods, plant-based diet!!!

I am writing this article to present the most up to date information I am aware of when it comes to getting all the nutrients we need, in the right amounts, to live long, quality lives. Here are the 6 nutrients people on a vegan diet need to pay closest attention to:

  Vegans May Need to Supplement These Nutrients

1. B-12 

Every single person on a vegan diet, no matter how balanced and healthy you eat, must supplement their diet to get the appropriate levels of B-12 in their system. For more information on why this is the case, click HERE. The simplest way to ensure you get enough is taking an oral supplement. There are many B12-fortified foods on the shelves, such as certain cereals and nut milks, but instead of trying to make sure you eat those specific foods every day, I recommend simply taking a supplement. The recommended amount is either a single dose of 2,500 mcg per week, or a daily dose of 250 mcg in the form of a chewable, sublingual, or liquid vitamin. You may not experience any symptoms of B12 deficiency until you have irreversible neurological damage.

2. DHA

There is research that shows one reason people, and for some reason vegans especially, can have health problems later in life is due to a consistently high omega 6:omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammation, and omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammation. For more on inflammation click HERE. We need both to survive, but in general, we are consuming way too much omega 6, and too little omega 3. We can get the short-chain omega 3 fatty acids from several plant-foods such as flax seeds and walnuts, however we usually cannot convert enough of this form, to the long-chain omega 3 fatty acid DHA.  It is therefore recommended for those on a plant-based diet to take a vegan, algae-based DHA supplement. In fact, I tell everyone taking a fish oil to switch to an algae-derived supplement (where do you think the fish get the omega 3s from? Why risk the heavy metal contamination and sea environmental destruction to get the fish oil, when we can easily grow the algae in a controlled environment without contaminants or sea devastation!)

3. Calcium

Despite the common myth that we need cow’s milk to get enough calcium, it’s certain green vegetables that have the highest absorption rate. You will actually absorb more calcium from broccoli, kale, and bok choy than cow’s milk, and  soybeans absorb calcium equally as well as cow’s milk. Higher oxilate-containing greens, such as spinach and beet greens however, have poor calcium absorption. Therefore, if you are eating enough of the calcium-containing foods with good absorption and/or eating enough calcium-fortified foods, you may very well be getting in your recommended daily value of calcium, which is (according to the National Institute of Health in 2013) 2,500 mg for adults age 19-50, 2,000 for ages 51+ (see HERE for more) . If this is not the case however, a calcium supplement is appropriate to prevent osteoporosis down the road.

4. Iron

Most of us were raised believing we need to eat cows (red meat) to get iron in our diets. This is not at all true. Many plant foods are high in iron like chick peas and pumpkin seeds, and the iron is absorbed particularly well when we eat these with foods high in vitamin C like broccoli and citrus. We have to be careful though… if we don’t absorb enough, we risk anemia, but if we absorb too much, our bodies can become overloaded, causing oxidative stress, a boost of free radicals, all greatly increasing our risk for cancer. Our intestines are able to help regulate our iron levels by absorbing more from plant foods if we are low, and absorbing less if we are levels are “in the sweet spot.” BUT this is only true for plant foods. Interestingly, intestines cannot play this same role for iron in blood from animal foods non-vegans consume. It is recommended, that before deciding to take an iron supplement, you have your iron levels checked and only begin a careful iron supplement regiment if your level is low.

5. D

Vitamin D is a tricky one. Recently it has been discovered that the majority of Americans (vegan and omnivores alike) are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D plays a more important role in preventing chronic disease than we once thought. With the right amount of sunlight, it is possible, but not probable to get the recommended amount. Knowing if you are getting the enough sun on enough of your skin is difficult and depends on your location in the world and time of year. Plus, it is thought that sunscreen negates our ability to make vitamin D from the sun, and without sunscreen we put our skin at great risk for harmful aging and cancer-causing UV rays thanks to ozone depletion. There are few foods that contain vitamin D in ideal amounts. Basically, I’m saying that there is a good chance you need to eat fortified foods and/or supplement. Many nut milks and cereals on the grocery shelves are fortified with vitamin D, but again, if you are not consuming enough consistently this way, a supplement may be a good idea.

6. Magnesium

The health benefits of magnesium was, for a long time, underestimated. Magnesium favorably affects our risks for insulin resistance, and many of our top killers like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Magnesium acts to help in the production of ATP (the energy molecules of your body), the action of your heart muscle, formation of bones and teeth, relaxation of blood vessels, regulation of bowel movements, and regulation of blood sugar levels. Important stuff! Magnesium is found in leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Some of the foods highest in magnesium include seaweed (agar), pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, cocoa, and almonds. Therefore, if you are eating a balanced, whole foods, plant-based vegan diet, you very well could be ok. Most vegans and vegetarians have higher magnesium levels than most meat-eaters for that reason. So why am I mentioning it? My hope is that working out is a large part of your life routine, and since we loose some magnesium through sweat, and magnesium has been found to aid in recovery, it is something to take note of! So if you are not getting at least the recommended amount (400 mg, see HERE for details) of magnesium daily, you may want to supplement. A magnesium-calcium-D combination supplement could be the best option because they all work synergistically and maintaining a proper ratio is also important.

7. Iodine

It has recently come into the spotlight that many health-conscious vegans are deficient in iodine, something I had never heard before. If you are like me, and do not consume iodized salt regularly (I only keep non-iodized Himalayan and Celtic sea salt in my home), eating sea vegetables/seaweed on a regular basis can be the easiest way to ensure adequate levels. Kelp however, is so loaded with iodine that it can cause an iodine overdose which can adversely affect your thyroid, so be careful. On the other end of the spectrum, it was found that vegans that ate certain healthy foods, like flaxseeds and broccoli, that contain what’s called a goitrogenic compound which can interfere with thyroid function in those with inadequate iodine levels. The RDA recommends 150 mcg per day (with the upper limit set at 1,000 mcg by the World Health Organization), while some experts believe this is too low for many people.

I realize that all of this can seem overwhelming. It is important however, to do our best to soak in the information, take a look at our diets, and see if anything we are eating, or not eating, could be causing us imbalances with the potential for harm. This is important for EVERYONE to do, not just vegans by the way. Many times, signs and symptoms of deficiencies are not recognized or diagnosed until irreversible damage. If you take away one point from this article however, let it be that all vegans must consume a B12 supplement for optimal health!