Does a Vegan’s Diet Need to Include Any Supplements?

Over the past decade, plant-based and vegan diets have surged in popularity. For some, veganism represents an ethical stance against animal cruelty and environmental devastation caused by industrial animal agriculture. Others are drawn to its potential health benefits, as a vegan diet has been linked to lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

Vegan Meal

While a well-planned vegan diet can be nutritious and provide all the nutrients one needs, there are some areas where vegans are at greater risk of deficiency compared to non-vegans. The reason is that several key nutrients are most abundantly and bioavailable from animal-derived foods that vegans eliminate from their diet. So the question arises: do vegans need to take supplements to fill in nutritional gaps?

The short answer is yes, most vegans will likely benefit from taking certain supplements to ensure they meet their nutritional needs for optimal health and disease prevention. While it may be possible to obtain all essential nutrients from a meticulously planned, diverse vegan diet alone, it can be quite difficult to do so consistently without supplements. Here are some of the most important nutrients vegans may need to pay special attention to:

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 Supplements

Vitamin B12 is arguably the most critical nutrient for vegans to supplement. B12 is critically involved in red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. The only reliable, unfortified sources are animal-derived foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Vegans consuming no animal foods whatsoever are at very high risk of B12 deficiency over time. Since B12 deficiency can potentially cause irreversible neurological damage, all vegans should make a point of regularly consuming B12-fortified foods or taking a B12 supplement.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplements

Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA play vital roles in brain health, heart health, inflammation regulation, and prenatal development. The best dietary sources are fatty fish and fish oil supplements. For vegans, plant sources like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and algae provide ALA, a precursor that can be converted into EPA and DHA in the body. However, this conversion is very inefficient. Most experts recommend vegans take an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement to meet their needs for these critical omega-3s.

Iron

Iron Supplements

Iron is an essential mineral involved in oxygen transport and energy production within cells. While plant foods like lentils, cashews, spinach, quinoa, and fortified cereals contain iron, it is in the non-heme form, which is not as readily absorbed as the heme iron in meat and fish. Women especially may struggle to meet iron needs on a vegan diet alone, especially during pregnancy when requirements increase substantially. An iron supplement may be warranted to prevent or correct deficiency.

Calcium

Calcium Supplements

Calcium is critical for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. It also plays a key role in nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and blood clotting. Dairy products are a major dietary calcium source for non-vegans. Vegans can obtain calcium from fortified plant milk, tofu, tempeh, calcium-set tofu, leafy greens, and some nuts and seeds. However, calcium bioavailability varies, and vegans may fall short of their needs without supplements, especially during adolescence, pregnancy/lactation, and older adulthood.

Iodine

Iodine Supplements

Iodine is an often overlooked but essential mineral, required for the production of thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism and other critical functions. Sources include iodized salt, dairy products, eggs, fish, and seaweed. Vegans who do not regularly consume seaweed and do not use iodized salt may be at risk for iodine deficiency and should consider taking a supplement that contains iodine.

Zinc

Zinc Supplements

Zinc is a mineral that plays roles in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, and cell division. While present in plant foods like grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, zinc is less bioavailable from plant sources compared to animal sources like shellfish, meat, and eggs. Furthermore, compounds in grains, seeds, and legumes can inhibit zinc absorption. A zinc supplement may help vegans more easily meet their needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D Supplements

Vitamin D is often called the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies can produce it from exposure to sunlight on bare skin. It promotes calcium absorption and is important for bone health and immune function. Very few foods are naturally good sources of vitamin D. Those living in northern latitudes or using sunscreen regularly may be at increased risk of deficiency. Vitamin D supplements can be beneficial for vegans and non-vegans alike.

While taking a basic vegan multivitamin/mineral supplement can help cover basic needs, some vegans may require higher therapeutic doses of certain nutrients like B12, iron, iodine, or omega-3s if testing shows deficiency. Consulting with a qualified nutrition professional can help evaluate individual nutrient status and supplement requirements as a vegan.

Vegan Diet

Ultimately, while it is theoretically possible to meet all essential nutrient needs through a properly planned vegan diet alone, it is extremely challenging for most people in practice. The quality and variety of the vegan diet have a major influence on nutrient adequacy. Health-conscious vegans tend to consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds than the general population: a positive factor for overall nutrition.

However, it is the elimination of animal foods that heightens the risk of certain nutrient shortfalls. Vegan supplements are a convenient, affordable way to help prevent deficiencies and optimize health on a plant-based diet. They offer vegans peace of mind in achieving a truly well-balanced, nutrient-replete diet for lifelong wellness.

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