Do Vegans Need Supplements?
While eating a healthy vegan diet will provide you with the right nutrients and keep you healthy, it’s good to note that vegan foods can be deficient in some essential nutrients. Without proper planning, deficiencies can occur, putting your health and life at risk. Read How To Start A Vegan Diet and Plant Sources Of Iron.
So, should vegans take supplements, and which ones? Let’s take a look at some of the top vegan supplements that you can incorporate into your diet and the reasons why you might want to add them.
What is the Meaning of Vegan?
A vegan is someone who does not eat or use animal products and by-products, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, honey, and dairy products. They may also avoid any animal-derived products, such as lanolin, gelatin, and clothing made of wool or leather. Most vegans are motivated by a desire to cause the least amount of harm to animals possible and to preserve the environment.
Whatever your reasons, though, you can be sure that being vegan will provide you with lots of health benefits!
What are Vegan Supplements?
If you are a vegan, you need certain nutrients, including vitamins and minerals to function properly, and sometimes, you cannot get these nutrients from the plant food you eat. That’s where vegan supplements come in, offering an easy way to add essential nutrients to your diet and fill any gaps in your nutritional needs.
In other words, a supplement is any substance added to something else to complete or enhance it. In the world of health and vegan nutrition, supplements are used to complete the diet by providing more specific essential nutrients not otherwise consumed in sufficient quantities in plant-based foods.
However, when it comes to vegan supplements, the most important thing to keep in mind is that supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like medications are. As a vegan, you need to be very careful to ensure the supplements you’re purchasing are indeed vegan.
The best way to do that is to carefully read labels to eliminate any hidden animal ingredients. Also, ensure you get your supplements from a reputable brand.
If you are on any medication, consult your doctor first because different supplements may interact with medications leading to adverse effects.
Should Vegans Take Supplements, and Which Ones?
Many people following the vegan diet may think that they do not need to take any supplements since they eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. However, some nutrients may be lacking in vegan diets, which can affect their health and overall wellness. So yes, vegans should definitely take supplements, and here are the important ones to remember
1. Vitamin B12
Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that the body needs but cannot produce. So it has to be supplied through food or a supplement.
Vitamin B12 is naturally produced by bacteria found in soil and the guts of animals. Traditionally, humans could obtain this vitamin by eating unwashed plant foods, which is not the case today. In addition, chemical agriculture practiced today has destroyed the soil bacteria making the plants deficient in the nutrient.
Animal products are generally high in vitamin B12, but for anyone on a vegan diet, a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended.
B12 is responsible for different body functions such as
- Red blood cell formation
- Nutrient absorption
- Reproductive health
- Supporting healthy skin, nails, and hair
- Improving moods
- Supporting the nervous system
- Improving brain health
- Promoting heart health
- Increasing energy.
A deficiency, on the other hand, can lead to anemia and nerve-related issues. However, deficiencies are rare because, unlike other vitamins, the body has the ability to store B12 in the liver for future use.
It might take 3-5 years for the body to exhaust its B12 stores completely. That’s why deficiencies are very rare unless one has a gut problem that interferes with its absorption.
But Why Is It Necessary For Vegans To Take B12?
Vitamin B12 is available in fortified plant foods, such as fortified flours, plant milk like soy and almond milk, meat alternatives, vegan spreads, or nutritional yeast.
And although incorporating these foods into your daily diet can help boost your B12 levels, the amount may not be enough to get you to the levels you need. So you can have those foods in your routine, but include a supplement, especially because even though the deficiencies are rare, they are quite fatal when they happen.
On average, an adult needs approximately 2.4 mcg of B12 a day. Here is a Vegan B12 Supplement.
The Vitamin B12 supplement itself is not an animal product, it is made from fermentation and bacteria. Therefore both humans and animals need to get Vitamin B12 from bacteria. However, there might be other things added to the supplement so you need to make sure that your B12 supplement is vegan
Some Vegan Sources Of Vitamin B12
- Fortified Non-Dairy Milk (almond, oat, soy, coconut, rice)
- Fortified breakfast cereals.
Best B12 Supplement for Vegans
Vitamin B12 supplements are often derived from two sources: methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin.
Cyanocobalamin is a synthetic and inactive form of vitamin B12. It’s more stable and cost-effective, thus commonly used in most vitamin B12 supplements and fortified foods. When consumed, cyanocobalamin must be converted to an active form of vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin) before the body can use it.
Unlike cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin is an active and naturally occurring form of vitamin B12. It’s the form present in food sources but can also be obtained as a supplement. Once ingested, methylcobalamin is converted for use by the body. Unfortunately, this form is unstable and can be quite expensive.
So which one should you choose? Cyanocobalamin is often recommended because it’s absorbed slightly better than methylcobalamin. Besides, it’s cheaper. However, if you have a kidney problem, you’re a heavy smoker, or have any serious condition that may interfere with your metabolism, a more active form of vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) is recommended.
To meet your recommended daily intake, take at least 3-5 micrograms of vitamin B12 supplement daily or take a weekly supplement of 2000 micrograms.
2. Omega 3
Vegans are more likely to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids than people on animal foods. This is because omega 3 cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained from food.
Although plant foods like seeds contain some omega-3s, they aren’t as readily available to our bodies as those found in fish and seafood. Vegan supplements can help fill that gap and provide a valuable nutrient that is crucial for brain health, among other functions.
Omega-3 is important for different body functions such as
- Improving heart health
- Promoting brain function
- Reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack
- Improving eye health
- Promoting brain health during pregnancy
- Fighting depression and anxiety
- Improving bone and joint health
- Improving sleep
- Neutralizing the pro-inflammatory omega6s that we consume.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion on omega-3 supplements and whether you need to take them on a vegan diet or not.
Omega-3 belongs to a family of at least 15 different fat molecules, but the important ones are EPA, DHA, and ALA.
EPA and DHA are present in seaweed and algae while ALA is abundant in plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables.
However, ALA is not active until it’s converted into EPA or DHA. This conversion also depends on sufficient amounts of other nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B6 and B7, copper, and iron.
You can obtain adequate Omega 3 from either plant sources or omega-3 supplement
So, on a vegan diet, it’s advisable to consume an omega-3 supplement in addition to ALA-containing plant foods. In order to consume sufficient amounts of your body’s DHA and EPA needs.
A daily intake of between 250mg – 500mg is recommended. Here is a Vegan Omega 3 supplement.
And when choosing an omega-3 supplement, it’s good to take a plant-based source such as algae, which is the original source of omega-3.
Consuming about 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds daily is enough to meet your daily ALA needs.
Iodine is a mineral naturally found in the soil close to ocean regions or in oceans and in dairy.
It is essential for promoting thyroid health, reducing the risk of goiters, and general body metabolism.
An average adult requires 150 mcg of iodine daily, with a teaspoon of iodized salt being enough for the daily requirement.
Insufficient intake may lead to thyroid symptoms such as hair loss, fatigue, brain fog, unintentional weight gain, feeling cold despite warm temperatures, depression, tingling sensation in your hands and feet, and forgetfulness.
According to studies, vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians of Norway are at a higher risk of iodine deficiency. This is because whole foods plant-based diet minimizes added salt, and in most cases, the salt consumed is not iodized.
Although iodine can also be obtained from plant foods, these foods need to have been grown in iodine-rich soil, such as near the ocean.
Foods with consistently high amounts of iodine include iodized salt and seaweed.
In addition to low intake of iodized salt, healthy foods like raw cruciferous vegetables, flax seeds, and soybeans contain phytochemicals that can interfere with iodine utilization in people with already marginal intake, potentially exacerbating the problem for those eating healthy.
This makes iodine a tricky and challenging nutrient to ensure thyroid health as it can also be over-consumed.
Nonetheless, if you don’t want to consume iodized salt or seaweed, ensure you include an Iodine supplement to avoid deficiencies.
But you should always get tested to know your levels before you start taking the supplement to avoid excessive intake, which can also pose a health risk.
If you’re vegan, it’s worth making sure you’re getting enough zinc—which is an important mineral for various metabolic functions including
- Boosting your immune system
- Accelerating wound healing and tissue repair
- Reducing the risk for age-related conditions like age-related macular degeneration
- May help treat cancer
- May lower inflammation
- Promotes growth and development
- Strengthens bones
- Maintains strong brain functions
- May enhance weight loss
- It may improve your sense of taste, smell, and vision
- Improves energy levels
Many plant-based foods are excellent sources of zinc. Good ones include beans, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. However, the zinc in plant foods can be tricky to absorb into the body. This calls for a supplement to ensure vegans don’t run into deficiencies.
Although there are many plant sources for vegans, the zinc available in plant foods is difficult for the body to absorb due to the presence of phytate, a chemical in plants that inhibits its absorption. This is why a zinc supplement is recommended when following a vegan diet.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include
- Anxiety and depression
- Poor concentration
- Weak immune system
- Slow healing
- Hormonal disturbances
- Muscle loss
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss
- Eye and skin infections
And although soaking some foods like legumes, nuts, and seeds overnight or consuming fermented foods can enhance zinc absorption, a supplement will make it a lot easier to meet all your nutritional needs.
Zinc dosage and toxicity
In order to maintain your daily zinc recommendations and avoid overconsumption, keep your intake at 11 mg for adult men and 8 mg for adult women. Pregnant and breastfeeding women may need a slightly higher dosage of 11 and 12mg, respectively.
While zinc supplements are an essential part of a vegan diet, too much intake can cause side effects, especially if using a supplement. Common signs of toxicity include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal cramps
- Decreased HDL (good cholesterol)
- Reduced immune function
5. Vitamin D
If you eat a vegan diet with few fortified foods, your vitamin D intake may be low. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health, and osteoporosis is of particular concern for older women. In addition to ensuring that you get enough vitamin D from your diet, supplementation is often recommended.
It’s a challenge for vegans to consume sufficient vitamin D because Vitamin D is mainly found in foods that come from animals like fish or egg yolks. Sunlight can be another way to get Vitamin D, but if you’re vegan and live in northern latitudes, you may not get enough sunlight, putting you at risk of various health conditions.
An eight-week study published in 2011 found that blood levels of vitamin D were 30 percent lower in vegan women than omnivores and were lowest during winter. The study also found that people with low vitamin D levels tend to have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation and heart disease risk.
In addition, research has linked both low vitamin D and high CRP levels to an increased risk of diabetes.
Vitamin D deficiency symptoms
If you have low vitamin D levels, you’ll more than likely to experience these symptoms
- General weakness
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Muscle cramps
- Dry skin
- Mood swings
- Low immunity and increased susceptibility to infections.
In addition to osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes, severe cases of vitamin D deficiency may also lead to high blood pressure, depression, and respiratory issues.
Vegans can get some vitamin D from mushrooms, fortified foods like cereal, and plant milk, but most experts recommend that vegans supplement their diet daily with 400 IU of vegan vitamin D.
Although vitamin D can be obtained as a supplement, most of them are not vegan friendly, so make sure to read the package carefully.
What about vitamin D toxicity?
While sun exposure and food sources of vitamin D cannot result in toxicity, too much intake of vitamin D supplements may lead to harmful effects.
The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium; however, too much vitamin D in the body can increase your calcium levels in the blood resulting in problems like
- Too much thirst
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
Some individuals don’t need to take vitamin D as supplements but if you are getting inadequate sun exposure, you definitely need a supplement. Taking Vitamin D supplements with high-fat vegan foods helps with absorption. This may include foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Calcium is essential for maintaining a strong skeletal structure – protecting you against osteoporosis and reducing the risk for fractures. It’s also necessary for your nerve, heart, and muscle functions.
Calcium deficiency can occur when you do not eat enough calcium-rich foods or do not absorb enough calcium from the foods you eat. Calcium deficiency, also called hypocalcemia, results in softening and weakening of the bones, which may lead to fractures or other skeletal injuries if left untreated. The most common symptoms of calcium deficiency include bone and muscle pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, constipation, and weakness.
Low calcium and vitamin D can both increase the risk of osteoporosis. Read More.
We’ve all heard how important milk is in providing calcium, but the truth is plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, and other legumes can provide just as much.
However, high phytic acid in grains, soy, nuts, and seeds and high oxalic acid in foods such as beans and spinach can lower the calcium uptake from these foods by up to half the total amount. Hence the reason to supplement more.
How much calcium do you need?
The recommended daily allowance of calcium is between 1,000 milligrams and 1,500 milligrams per day, depending on your age and gender. Adults up to age 50 years old require 1,000 milligrams, while those with 51 years through 70 need 1,200 milligrams per day.
After age 70, one will need 1,500 milligrams per day. The recommendation for pregnant and breastfeeding women under 19 years old is 1,300 milligrams each day, while after 19 years old (for pregnant and breastfeeding women), they should lower their intake to 1,000 milligrams each day.
But keep in mind that if you are consuming adequate calcium food sources prepared in a way that fights the antinutrient compounds in plant foods (such as soaking legumes like beans overnight), taking a vegan calcium supplement may not be necessary.
While the calcium in food is well regulated to allow safe amounts into the bloodstream, calcium supplements may result in high calcium blood levels.
This may result in side effects such as kidney stones, weak bones, hyperactive thyroid, cardiovascular issues, and mental impairment. So if you think your dietary sources of calcium are inadequate, especially if you are vegan, you can take a supplement but ensure you stick to the recommended amounts.
Vegans avoid eating any animal products or byproducts, making their food sources particularly limited compared to those of non-vegans. For this reason, vegans are more susceptible to certain nutritional deficiencies than their non-vegan counterparts.
One such deficiency is Vitamin B12, which plays an important role in cell division and blood formation. Vegans who don’t take B12 supplements can suffer from fatigue, weakness, and nerve damage over time.
Another common deficiency is zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and omega 3. However, one thing to remember is that too much intake of these supplements can be harmful to your health. So always keep your intake within the recommended dosages.
Also, before embarking on any supplement as a daily routine, consult with your doctor or a health practitioner to have your levels checked.
It’s easier to say a vegan diet doesn’t work when you lack an understanding of what it can and can’t do. Now that you understand the different nutrient inadequacies, hope you’ll do better to ensure you thrive in optimal health as a vegan.
Other Related Articles
- 6 Benefits Of A Plant-Based Diet
- How To Transition To A Plant-Based Diet
- Is Vegan Gluten-Free
- What’s The Difference Between Vegan And Vegetarian
- Start A Vegan Diet
- What’s The Difference Between A Vegan And Plant-Based Diet
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