What Supplements Vegans Do Need?
By Scott Burgett | 5.30.18
It comes as no surprise that a well planned vegan diet that emphasizes whole foods can have a miraculous affect on your health. Research continues to validate that a vegan (or plant-based) diet can help ward of disease and give people a new level of energy they never experienced before.
However, even with the promising benefits of eating vegan, there are still some vitamins and minerals that need to be monitored with more care. Some of these are non-negotiable and others are needed only in special cases.
Identify whether or not you need to supplement by getting regular blood tests, along with keeping an open line of communication with your physician. Be proactive about your nutrient intake by using tools like cronometer to track your food.
While it’s always best to get your nutrition through whole plant foods, modern day life makes it difficult at times. To address that problem, this post will answer the important question: what supplements do vegans need?
This section of the supplement guide is for all vegans, regardless of nutrient intake.
Vitamin B12 is essential for all of human life. We need it to synthesize our DNA and protect our brains.
The consequences and symptoms of a B12 deficiency are something no human should ever have to experience. That is why it is crucial all vegans have access to a reliable source of Vitamin B12.
Some of the less severe symptoms of a deficiency include dizziness, fatigue, and loss of appetite. More detrimental and serious symptoms are dementia, blindness, and death.
However, the good news is that it’s extremely easy to avoid any symptoms of a B12 deficiency through supplementation.
B12 is actually found naturally both in the soil and in animal products. However, since vegans don’t eat dirt or animal products, it’s imperative they get it from a dedicated source.
Food is not that source. Even though vegan-friendly foods like nutritional yeast, mushrooms, and fortified foods contain B12, they are not reliable.
As prescribed by the National Institute of Health (NIH):
- Healthy adults should supplement with 2.4 mcg per day
- Pregnant females need 2.6 mcg per day
- Lactating females need 2.4 mcg per day
Supplement companies sell Vitamin B12 in large doses, so choosing a once weekly 2500 mcg dose is adequate. This ensures that any potential absorption issues will be avoided.
Whether in a pill, tablet, lozenge, or syringe, any form of supplementation will work.
Top Selling Vegan and Vegetarian Vitamin B12 Supplements on Amazon
- Jarrow Formulas Methylcobalamin B12 (5000mcg)
- VeganSafe B-12 – Organic Liquid Vegan Vitamin B12 (2500mcg)
- Deva Vegan Vitamin B-12 Fast Dissolve Lozenges (1000mcg)
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays many roles in the body, but is most known for its role in bone formation and promoting calcium absorption in the gut. You can obtain it through sun exposure, fortified foods, and supplements.
Nearly every cell in our body has Vitamin D receptors. Many animal products also contain vitamin D such as dairy milk, egg yolks, and some dairy yogurt. You can also find it in fortified cereals, juices, and plant milks too.
A lesser known fact about Vitamin D is it’s both a hormone and a vitamin. That’s because our bodies produce Vitamin D naturally when our skin is exposed to the sun and it’s obtained naturally in foods. Both of these methods of availability qualify it as a hormone and a vitamin.
Unfortunately, over two-thirds of the world population is deficient in Vitamin D. We have become a society that stays indoors most of the day and doesn’t prioritize diet. Both contribute to the Vitamin D deficiency problem.
To obtain Vitamin D through sun exposure, simply expose your bare skin to the sun’s rays for 15-20 minutes. Ideally, this would be between the hours of 10am – 2pm, when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. Do this for a minimum of three times per week.
What’s the difference between Vitamin D2 or D3?
Vitamin D2 comes from plants, while Vitamin D3 comes from animals. Studies also point to Vitamin D3 as being superior because it absorbs at a slower rate (therefore staying in your body longer).
Vitamin D3 is also the form that your skin produces, further lending to the point of superiority. That is why experts recommend Vitamin D3 as their preferred supplement.
Currently, the RDA stands as follows:
- Healthy adults up to age 70 – 600 IU (15 mcg) per day
- Healthy adults 71 or better – 800 IU (20 mcg) per day
Top Selling Vegan and Vegetarian Vitamin D Supplements on Amazon
Most Vitamin D3 supplements contain lanolin, which comes from sheep’s wool. Since that is not suitable for vegans, make sure your supplement includes lichen (a fungi-derived ingredient):
- Doctor Formulated Vegan Vitamin D3 Supplement (cholecalciferol) 1000 IU
- Doctor’s Best Vitamin D3 2500 IU
- Garden of Life Vitamin D 2000 IU
Omega-3s (DHA & EPA)
Scientists classify Omega-3 fatty acids into two categories:
- Short chain (ALA) – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. This means you can only get it from your diet.
- Long Chain (EPA & DHA) – This includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are not essential because our body can produce them.
ALA omega-3 fatty acids are found most prominently in cold-water fish. However, there are several plant-based sources of ALA including walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soybeans and to a lesser extent pumpkin seeds. This essential fatty acid is known for all kinds of health benefits, but most notably for brain and eye health.
Research has also shown omega-3’s protecting against coronary heart disease and cancer and decreasing bodily inflammation. So getting enough ALA in the diet is of utmost importance for vegans.
There is evidence of ALA omega-3 sources converting small amounts into EPA and DHA within the body, but researchers are not convinced it’s enough. Typically vegans and vegetarians have omega-3 levels lower than the RDA when tested, which is why a reliable EPA/DHA supplement needs to be included in their diet.
One step people tend to miss is that fish have to get their Omega-3’s from somewhere too. That somewhere is micro algae. Micro algae are microscopic plant enzymes floating in the ocean that fish eat.
Vegans bypass the fish and go straight to the micro algae. Omnivores can do the same and avoid mercury poisoning in the process.
- Healthy Adults should supplement with 200-500 mg per day
Along with taking a reliable EPA/DHA micro algae supplement, another strategy to increase levels of EPA/DHA levels is to lower the amount of Omega-6 foods in the diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are heavy in oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and sesame.
Top Selling Vegan Omega-3 Supplements on Amazon
Based off of the RDA above, a vegan algae-based supplement containing both EPA and DHA is best.
- VEGAN OMEGA 3 – 60 Capsules of Algal DHA and EPA
- Ovega-3 Vegetarian/Vegan Omega-3
- Potent Vegan Omega 3 Supplement w/Essential Fatty Acids
This section of the supplement guide is for some vegans, dependent on their current nutrient intake.
Iodine is a crucial mineral needed for all people, but especially for vegans and some vegetarians who don’t eat fish or dairy products regularly. That’s because iodine is essential for a healthy functioning thyroid gland. The thyroid gland helps control your metabolism and other functions within your brain.
Symptoms of an iodine deficiency include hypothyroidism, in which case metabolism slows and cholesterol (and usually weight) increases. These symptoms stem from what’s called a goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid gland. This condition is easily avoidable with proper iodine intake.
In pregnant females, a thyroid deficiency can lead to irreversible mental retardation in their child because without iodine, a child’s brain can’t develop properly. Iodine deficiency in a pregnant woman can also increase their chances of a miscarriage or stillbirth.
To further the point, a 2011 cross-sectional study that took place in Boston, MA measured the iodine levels of over 125 vegetarians and vegans. The results showed that the vegan group had median iodine concentrations that were significantly lower than did the vegetarians.
The authors of the study also noted that none of the vegan participants were making any effort to maintain adequate iodine levels. With just a little planning, that problem is easily solved.
With that said, you can see the importance to understand whether or not you are getting enough iodine in your diet. Most of the iodine we consume today comes from the sea (through fish) or in dairy (from the iodized solution used to clean the cows teats, which ends up dairy milk).
However, since a vegan diet does not include fish or dairy, they must get is elsewhere. An alternative food source of iodine are sea vegetables like kelp, dulse, or nori. You can find these foods on web giants like Amazon or in specialty markets in your neighborhood.
The current RDA for iodine in healthy adults is 150 mcg, while pregnant females need 220 mcg and breastfeeding mothers need upwards of 290 mcg. Besides sea vegetables, the RDA can be met through other sources.
The first, and cheapest is iodized salt. At $.01 per serving in healthy adults, adding just 1/2 tsp to your daily diet is sufficient. What’s even better is that this option will also last you almost two years (624 servings)!
However, if you prefer supplements, you can snag a vegan kelp-based iodine source that costs $.04 per serving. This will last you just over half of a year (200 servings).
The Two Most Inexpensive Ways to Supplement with Iodine on Amazon:
The government and healthy agencies seared the importance of calcium into our brains since the first day of school. Dairy milk has been and is still marketed as the best source of calcium – milk makes our bones strong, right?
Wrong! Calcium helps create strong bones and it just happens to be prevalent in dairy milk. Yet, what is not talked about in schools or the public alike are the several other sources of plant-based calcium foods.
It’s important for vegans and for vegetarians who don’t consume dairy to obtain enough of this mineral not only for general health, but for strong teeth, nerve signaling, heart health, and proper muscle firing.
Another widely believed symptom of inadequate calcium intake is that it leads to higher chances of osteoporosis and bone fractures. However, recent evidence highlights that genetics and a host of other factors plays a role in that, not solely calcium intake.
Vegans and vegetarians should consider supplementing because of the lack of bioavailability of calcium in plant foods. Meaning the calcium in kale, mustard greens, bok choy, and broccoli are poorly absorbed by the body.
Currently the RDA for calcium is:
- 1,000 mcg per days for adults under 50
- 1,200 mcg per day for those 50 or better.
The Best Vegan and Vegetarian Approved Calcium Supplements on Amazon:
- Deva Vegan Calcium Supplement (2 Pack)
- Now Calcium-Magnesium Supplement
- Rainbow Light Food-Based Calcium
Note: only supplement for the amount you need. Some research suggests that calcium supplementation over 1,400 mcg is dangerous.
Iron is an element that bears its importance for all living organisms on earth. It’s primary functions include oxygen transport in the blood, regulating metabolism, and creation of our DNA.
It is one element that is abundant in a plant-based diet. Some of the best non-heme iron sources in plants are leafy greens, tofu, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Thus, there are plenty of options to meeting your iron intake requirement.
Iron is found in two different forms: heme iron (found in meat) and non-heme iron (found in plants). Some research suggests that non-heme iron isn’t as readily absorbable as the heme iron in meat.
This carries some truth, but with a couple of the nutrient hacks listed below, you can easily absorb the iron needed, strictly through plants.
Iron Nutrient Hacks
Pairing the high iron foods above with a Vitamin C source (like oranges, kiwis, or red bell peppers), vegans and vegetarians can increase iron absorption by up to 500%.
Additionally, cooking high-iron containing vegetables like broccoli or spinach in a cast iron pan will boost their bio availability. Soaking beans and lentils before consumption helps too.
The current RDA for iron stands as follows:
- Healthy adults ages 19-50: 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women
- Healthy adults 51 and better: 8 mg for both men and women
- Pregnant females ages 19-50: 27 mg
- Lactating females ages 19-50: 9 mg
Nutrition experts recommend that vegans and vegetarians to shoot for 1.8 times the RDA of iron in order to account for any absorption issues. That would increase the recommendations to 14 mg for men and 32 mg for women.
Before adding in an iron supplement to your diet, make sure to talk with your doctor to determine if it’s absolutely necessary. Ingesting levels above the RDA is dangerous.
If it is best for you to supplement, the levels found in a daily multivitamin will suffice (along with a diet full of high-iron plant foods).
The Best Vegan and Vegetarian Multivitamin Supplements for Iron Support on Amazon:
- Deva Vegan Multivitamin Mineral Support (Tiny Tablets + 2 Pack)
- Deva Vegan Multivitamin and Mineral Support
- Whole Food Power Multivitamin
Similar to iron, zinc is a trace mineral that plays roles in protein metabolism, immune function, cell growth and repair. Deficiencies are rare but include symptoms such as hair loss, diarrhea, and problems with wound healing.
Unfortunately, very few plant foods actually contain zinc and even in the ones that do, there are issues with absorption. This is due to the plant’s phytate content, which are compounds in plant seeds that store phosphorus (a vital element for plant growth).
Zinc-Rich Foods and Nutrient Hacks
Before adding in a supplement, increase the sources of zinc-rich plant foods in your diet such as:
- Whole grains
- Wheat germ
- Tofu and Tempeh
- Sprouted bread
- Nuts and seeds
You can also maximize zinc uptake into your cells by using some of the preparation methods below:
- Soak dry beans overnight before cooking
- Sprouting beans and legumes (this directly destroys phytates)
- Toast nuts and seeds before consuming
- Eat fermented foods like sourdough bread and tempeh
The current RDA for zinc:
- Healthy adults: 8-9 mg per day
- Pregnant females: 11-12 mg per day
- Breastfeeding mothers: 12-13 mg per day
Since humans have trouble absorbing zinc when phytates are present, experts recommend (similar to iron) that vegans and vegetarians take in 1.8 times the RDA. That would increase the recommended RDA for vegans and vegetarians from 8-9 mg to 14 -16 mg per day.
Additionally, zinc supplements fight for space when combined with other supplemental sources of iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, and folate (aka multivitamin). If you do choose to supplement with it individually, make sure to take it at a different time than other vitamins.
Top Rated Amazon Zinc Supplements for Vegans and Vegetarians:
- Deva Vegan Multivitamin Mineral Support (Tiny Tablets + 2 Pack)
- BlueBonnet EarthSweet Zinc Lozenges (15mg)
Eating a vegan diet can provide you with an abundance of nutrients, but there are still vitamins and minerals that lack. Using food tracking tools like cronometer.com will help you identify any potential nutrient deficiencies.
Always look to eat real food to obtain nutrients first, but consider supplements because they are an easy, convenient, and cheap way to cover your bases. Those supplements include:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 EPA/DHA
Do you take any of the supplements mentioned above? Comment below with your answer!