If you’re anything like I was at the start of my plant-based journey, then when it comes to supplements – let alone specific supplements for vegans – you’re no doubt thoroughly confused!
With so much conflicting information, I had traditionally given the world of multivitamins a wide berth. It was only when I finally started educating myself on the pros and cons of going plant-based that it quickly came to my attention that supplementing was something I should probably consider.
So the question is, can you get all the nutrients you need from a well-planned vegan diet, or is it still beneficial to take a supplement? Do pills even work? And what vegan vitamins should you be supplementing with, anyway?
In this guide, I’ll answer all of these questions and more. So read on to cut through the marketing hype and understand exactly what you need to thrive on a vegan diet.
The Importance of Vegan Nutrition for Optimum Health
As a starting point, it’s worth stating the obvious that diet is the cornerstone of optimum health.
If food is fuel, then the human body requires the right kind of fuel to function properly, including essential nutrients like carbs, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Whilst we can make some of these ourselves, we must also obtain many from external sources – generally, the food we ingest.
There are many proven health benefits of a balanced vegan diet, but it can be a little trickier at first than for those eating meat or dairy. This is because, other than being told the generic advice to get your five portions of fruit and veg a day, you’ve probably had little education as to the plant-based sources of most important nutrients.
Plus, not all plant-based foods are created equal or do the same job. So it does require some research and proper planning.
The following daily checklist from Dr Greger’s How Not to Die is a great general starting point to ensure a rich and varied diet that will give you many of the nutrients you need to thrive. And, all the better, in a completely natural way.
Do you need to take supplements as a vegan if you eat healthily?
Before you get ready to ditch your daily supplement altogether… It isn’t that black and white.
Using an evidence-based approach to supplement key nutrients we may be deficient in is essential to protect our long-term health.
For instance, we know of at least one vitamin vegans will be deficient in without supplementation: Vitamin B12. And, regardless of diet, it’s probably a good idea to supplement with Vitamin D, too.
There are further nutrients that vegans may be lacking for various reasons:
- They are found in specific foods that aren’t a part of your regular diet (e.g. seaweed)
- You’d have to eat a lot of them to reach the recommended daily intake
- They aren’t as bioavailable as their meat counterparts
- Different people’s bodies have different rates of absorption
Of course, none of this is obvious to the naked eye, so there is every reason to round off your diet with high-quality, targeted supplements for vegans.
What kind of supplement should vegans take?
When it comes to your health, it can be tempting to throw in the kitchen sink for good measure.
However, taking a one-size-fits-all multivitamin that is full of additives (fillers, binders and bulking agents) and packed with huge doses of nutrients that we already sufficiently receive through our regular diet… is not the answer. Studies have shown that these have little effect or could even do more harm than good.
Plus, you’ll want to take extra care that the formulation is vegan-friendly, as many supplements on the market today contain animal-derived ingredients.
So firstly, know what foods you should be eating and anything you suspect you may be deficient in (or, better yet, get a blood test to confirm this for you).
Then, you can either choose to take specific supplements, or you can do your research and find a vegan multivitamin that targets a plant-based diet’s potential deficiencies. The latter is my own personal choice, simply because it can quickly get expensive and become a lot of separate supplements to remember to take! But do what works best for you and speak to a health professional for a second opinion if you’re at all unsure.
Will supplements make up for a poor vegan diet?
The wellness industry is booming. And, with many people keen to make healthy choices but less willing to actually put the work in or make significant changes to their diet, a max-strength multivitamin is an incredibly tempting option for instant peace of mind.
Let’s be clear here: you can’t cheat the system by relying on a supplement as an insurance policy for all the crap you consume!
A daily multivitamin will not make up for or reverse the effects of a poor diet, and it’s certainly not a miraculous cure-all solution – no matter how much we might like to believe it.
If you have to supplement on a vegan diet, doesn’t that prove it’s unnatural and unhealthy?
There is nothing wrong with supplementation – when done in the right way. So don’t let anyone shame you into thinking otherwise.
It’s easy to forget that so much about traditional Western diets is totally unnatural to begin with. Animals kept as livestock are given supplemented feed, so don’t kid yourself that just because you’re getting your nutrients this way it’s a ‘natural’ process. By supplementing, most of the time we are simply cutting out the middle man (i.e. the cow or pig) and going straight to the source.
Recent research all points to whole food plant-based diets as being some of the healthiest in the world, reducing the risk of major killers. Read The China Study or watch What The Health if you need any more convincing on the science.
Despite all of the wonderful health benefits, it’s wise to be diligent about nutrition whatever diet you’re on. Veganism has its weak spots – it’s just a case of being mindful to ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs.
If nutrients are more easily absorbed by the body when eating meat, why not just eat meat?
Let’s assume we’re taking none of the ethical or sustainable questions into account and purely focusing on personal health…
There may be more readily bioavailable nutrients in meat and dairy products, but they also come with a whole host of other health risks, including high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol that can lead to conditions like obesity and high blood pressure, as well as chronic illnesses later down the line like heart disease, diabetes and even some types of cancers.
So when you eat meat and dairy, you basically consume a whole lot of bad alongside the good. A plant-based diet may require more education and planning, but you can cherrypick all of the good stuff, reap the numerous health benefits, and use supplements to your advantage to ensure an optimal nutritional profile.
8 Key Nutrients to Consider Supplementing on a Vegan Diet
So without any further ado, here are 8 nutrients you may want to consider supplementing on a plant-based diet. By far and away, the most important in this list to account for as a vegan is Vitamin B12. However, the other nutrients will still need careful planning to ensure adequate daily intake.
1. Vitamin B12
Let’s start with B12, the only vitamin that doesn’t occur naturally in plant foods. This is because it is produced by bacteria living in the digestive tract of animals that have consumed particles of soil or contaminated drinking water.
B12 is an essential nutrient for many blood and nerve activities, as well as DNA production and neurological function. A Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia as well as severe nerve damage in the long term, so ignore it at your own risk.
Whilst it’s obtainable from dairy, it’s often notably low in both vegan and vegetarians.
Vegan dietary sources: Fortified foods such as nutritional yeast flakes, Marmite, breakfast cereals, plant-based milks, tofu or tempeh
Do you still need to supplement: It’s difficult to know if you’re getting your RDI of Vitamin B12 with fortified foods, so if you’re a non-meat eater, it’s always advisable to supplement.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D – AKA the sunshine vitamin – is necessary to help our bodies absorb calcium (one of the main building blocks for healthy bones). Together with calcium, it protects you from developing osteoporosis.
Your body can make Vitamin D if you have regular direct sun exposure. However, depending on where you live and the amount of time you spend outside, it’s generally safer to rely on fortified foods and supplements.
Vegan dietary sources: Mushrooms, as well as fortified foods like tofu, plant milks, fruit juices or breakfast cereals
Do you still need to supplement: Whether on a vegan diet or not, most people should consider supplementing with Vitamin D, especially in the winter months when spending less time in natural sunlight.
3. Omega 3s
If you’re anything like me, then you’ve been firmly led to believe that omega-3 is obtained from oily fish. But this isn’t the whole story. Fish eat algae which is actually the source of omega-3s. There are also short-chain omega-3s (ALA) that can be found in some nuts and seeds, which the body can convert to long-chain (in particular, DHA and EPA).
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health, having been linked with lower rates of heart disease and some cancers. They are also essential for brain development in infants and normal brain function in adults.
Vegan dietary sources: Seaweed (long chain), as well as ground flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts (short chain)
Do you still need to supplement: Non-fish sources contain ALA that the body can convert into long-chain omega-3s. However, many people have low conversion rates, so unless you’re regularly eating seaweed, it’s a good idea to supplement (especially when pregnant).
Iron is a mineral that your body needs for growth and development. It is used by red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of the body, plus it’s important for Vitamin C absorption.
Red meat is a good source of iron, but fortunately, it can also be found in plant foods. Just bear in mind that it is a different type of iron (called non-heme iron), which is slightly more tricky for the body to absorb than the heme iron found in animal products.
Vegan dietary sources: Legumes, spinach, kale, tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, swiss chard, sea vegetables, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots and figs
Do you still need to supplement: Too much iron can lead to liver disease, heart problems and diabetes, so it’s best to check with your doctor if you have an iron deficiency before supplementing. It’s more typical in menstruating and pregnant women, but can still be fairly common across vegan diets in general.
As we just mentioned, calcium is essential for bone health. It also plays a role in muscle and nerve function as well as maintaining a healthy heart. But it’s a common myth that you must get your calcium through dairy products. In fact, it is readily obtainable in many vegan foods (just not in quite as high amounts as dairy products).
Vegan dietary sources: Legumes, nuts and seeds, dark leafy green vegetables (although not always the easiest for the body to absorb, so go for low oxalate veg like kale, broccoli and turnip greens), some whole grains like amaranth and brown rice, seaweed, sesame seeds, fortified plant milks, orange juice, bread, breakfast cereals or calcium-set tofu
Do you still need to supplement: Vegans can be at risk of a calcium deficiency. You should aim for the recommended RDI of 525mg or consider supplementing if you consistently struggle to reach this.
If you’ve not come across iodine when it comes to your nutritional needs, then don’t worry, because I hadn’t either! It’s often bypassed in discussions on vegan nutrition, but it’s an important mineral that is crucial for thyroid health. It is also vital for proper bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy.
Most people get their iodine quota from meat, fish and dairy. But if you’re a vegan, you’re going to need to get it elsewhere.
Vegan dietary sources: Kelp or dulse (you can buy dulse flakes) or iodized salt (but note that this will increase your sodium intake, too)
Do you still need to supplement: If the salt you buy doesn’t explicitly state that it is iodized, you’re likely missing out on this essential trace mineral, so consider supplementing as a vegan.
Zinc is a mineral found in protein-rich foods that you need for growth, development and cellular metabolism. It is therefore especially important during pregnancy, infancy and adolescence. It also helps your immune system to fight off illness and is also used to make DNA and proteins.
Vegan dietary sources: Legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified breakfast cereals and bread, tofu and tempeh
Do you still need to supplement: Zinc isn’t as readily available from plant sources as animal-based foods, so vegans need to eat plenty of it or else supplement their diet.
Selenium plays a critical role in reproduction and healthy thyroid function, as well as DNA synthesis and protection from oxidative damage.
Studies show that vegans can have low levels of selenium compared to their meat-eating counterparts, the effects of which can be exacerbated by an iodine deficiency.
Vegan dietary sources: Brazil nuts, sunflower or sesame seeds, mushrooms, whole grains, tofu, fortified bread and breakfast cereals
Do you still need to supplement: Predominant sources are meat, fish and eggs, so vegan diets are particularly vulnerable to low selenium intake. It’s a good idea to consider supplementation when pregnant due to its role in fetal development.
TL;DR How to Ensure You Meet All of Your Nutritional Needs as a Vegan
A varied and balanced diet based around whole foods is the best way to meet your nutritional needs as a vegan. A healthy vegan diet (that doesn’t rely on overly processed junk) is loaded with antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals, so is going to provide you with an overall well-rounded nutritional profile.
As Dr Greger points out, vitamins and minerals are absorbed much more readily from food sources rather than manmade pills. Different kinds of foods also interact with each other in different ways (e.g. fat-soluble vitamins), so simply relying on extracted supplements is not a way to cheat a healthy diet.
For those nutrients that are harder to obtain, it’s still a good idea to supplement a well-planned vegan diet. At the very least, take a Vitamin B12 tablet. But, to effectively tackle this list of common nutrient deficiencies (especially for women), I’d recommend taking a specifically targeted vegan multivitamin for peace of mind.
It can be confusing knowing where to start in the saturated world of supplements. It’s a lucrative business for those looking to profit off people’s health concerns, so in the past I’ve been sceptical.
However, having done my research, I have a better understanding now as to the place for supplements – even the need for supplements – especially on a strictly vegan diet. Supplementing may not feel like the most exciting use of your money, but educating yourself in this area and buying a quality multivitamin is the ultimate act of self-care which you’ll be thanking yourself for in years to come.
Please note that I am not a registered dietician or healthcare professional, so always check with one first before adding a supplement into your diet.
If you want some help with choosing a quality supplement that hits all of your nutritional vegan needs (and is good for the planet, too), then check out my follow-up post on the best vegan multivitamins currently available in the UK.