Key Supplements for Vegans and Vegetarians
A whole food, plant-centered diet is great for your health and for healthy aging1. But newbie vegans and vegetarians often have concerns about whether or not their diets can provide their bodies with all the vitamins and minerals they need.
There's good reason for this. Plants are more nutritious than many other foods, but they are less nutritious than they were a few decades ago. One reason is that our topsoil has been depleted and lost much of its mineral content. The foods our ancestors ate also had more healthy bacteria. Today, we typically clean and cook our foods, further reducing vitamin and mineral content.
As a result, it's smart to supplement your plant-based diet with some important nutrients that may be scarce in your food. Here are our top 5 recommendations.
5 Key Supplements for Vegans and Vegetarians
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for our health, but it is found naturally in dirt and animal products. Animals don’t make B12 naturally, they get it from the grass that grows in the dirt they eat. Soil bacteria in the gut of the animals produce vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 prevents nerve damage, protects the heart, supports energy levels, and the immune system. You can also develop anemia and neurological issues if you are deficient in vitamin B12 for a prolonged period of time. In one study, vitamin B12 deficiency affected 86 percent of all vegans 2.
Some non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast products are fortified with vitamin B12, but these products typically contain low doses of this vitamin.
2. Vitamin D
An estimated 40% of the world’s adult population has a vitamin D deficiency. Our early ancestors didn't have this problem, because they lived outdoors and didn’t wear as much clothing, allowing them to get plenty of vitamin D from the sun. Today, most of us work indoor and wear clothes and sunscreen outdoors.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and other minerals (including phosphorous). It is also crucial for the healthy functioning of your muscles, your heart, and your immune system. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed that those who maintained healthy vitamin D levels during the winter had lower rates of flu than those who received flu vaccines4.
We get most of our vitamin D from the sun, as it is not easily found in foods. Fortified milk products provide the most vitamin D in the American diet today. Some fatty fish and fish liver oils contain small amounts of vitamin D. Some mushrooms have their vitamin D content boosted with ultraviolet light. But it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from these sources, especially if you are vegan.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are essential for human health. DHA, in particular, is a primary structural fat in the human brain and eyes 5. However, these omega-3s are rare in plant-based foods. Research has shown that vegetarians and vegans have up to 50% lower blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA than omnivores 6.
The most common omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods is ALA. The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but only inefficiently and in small amounts. Plant foods that are highest in ALA are flax seeds, chia seeds, canola oil, camelina oil, walnuts, and hemp seeds.
EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty fish, such as Alaskan Pollock, salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, and tuna. The fish, however, get their omega-3s from eating certain forms of algae. Although algae is not a part of the human diet, you can find vegan DHA supplements made from algae.
Iron is a nutrient that your body uses to make new DNA and red blood cells. It also carries oxygen in your blood and delivers it to your cells 7. Having an iron deficiency can lead to anemia, fatigue, and decreased immune function. Vegans with a low iron intake should aim to eat more iron-rich foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Calcium is a mineral necessary for your bones and teeth. It also plays a big role in muscle function, nerve signaling, and heart health. Research shows that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium tend to have an increased risk of bone fractures. Plant sources of calcium include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, and fortified plant milk or juice.
1. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets, 2013 Spring; 17(2): 61–66
2. The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature, 06 July 2016
3. Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease, September 02, 2014
4. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data, 15 February 2017
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy, 2008
6. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets, 2013 Aug 19;199(4 Suppl):S22-6
7. Review on iron and its importance for human health, 2014 Feb; 19(2): 164–174
8. Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford, 2007 Dec;61(12):1400-6. Epub 2007 Feb 7