Supplements Needed For Vegans
Written by Ben: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition.
The health benefits of veganism are many and varied, and making the decision to cut meat-derived products out of your diet will pay off in ways beyond the ethical, however, vegans may suffer from some nutrient deficiencies by not eating animal products and may need supplements.
It has been reported by the National Institute of Health that while evidence is limited, a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with various health benefits.1
In this article we shall cover the following points:
- Health benefits
- Supplementing your diet
- Vitamin D
- Final Note
Health Benefits of Vegan
Without animal products on your plate, your risk of heart disease reduces massively, and you become much less at-risk from various cancers. A paper published by the Nutrients Journal also notes that a vegan diet’s various mechanisms support fat loss, and when you add that to the ethical principles of veganism, it’s not hard to see the attraction.2
With that said, making the switch from a meat-eating diet to veganism does come with a few challenges, as any substantial change in lifestyle inevitably will. If your body is used to a certain nutritional profile, then changing that profile is going to have consequences – that much is inevitable.
While the long-term benefits appear obvious, there is a realistic chance that you’ll find the change difficult, as you come to terms with the relative absence of certain nutrients which are more plentiful in a diet that contains meat.3
As a result, it becomes a question of how you replace those nutrients, and for many vegans, this means finding the right dietary supplements.
Supplementing your vegan diet
There are plenty of reasons people use dietary supplements. For some, it is a matter of necessity – various health conditions can mean that they don’t absorb the nutrients they do eat, and need to find a way to replace those.
For others, it may be that they have a dietary intolerance that prevents them from eating foods that contain certain nutrients – for example, people with lactose intolerance will need to find an alternative source of calcium. Naturally, if you are eating a meat-free diet, those nutrients you originally gained from the meat will need to be replaced, thus the benefits of a dietary supplement are clear.
If you find the initial transition to a vegan diet to be difficult, then there is a greater likelihood of slipping from your initial decision. As we’ve noted above, the genuine health benefits of vegan eating are substantial, so replacing the nutrients you may be missing becomes a matter of self-care.
Therefore it is important to understand what you can do about those “missed” nutrients, and in this overview, we will look at the nutrients you can replace with a simple regime of supplements. All of the below are commonly available and will ease your switch to vegan eating.
Of all the vitamins required to support the human body and its processes, B vitamins are among the most important, and may be the single group most fundamental to health.4
Among the B vitamins that have been studied, B12 may have the greatest role to play. Processes such as the metabolizing of protein and production of red blood cells are hugely dependent on a healthy level of vitamin B12; so, too, is the functioning of your body’s nervous system. Becoming pregnant, and carrying a healthy baby to term, also relies on this vitamin.
While the vitamin can be found in organic veg such as mushrooms and spirulina (if those are grown in B12-rich soils), there is little in the way of evidence to show that consumption of those foods is enough to promote sufficient levels in the human body.
Supplementing the vitamin in the form of cyanocobalamin tablets up to 100mg a day will benefit anyone following a vegan diet as it has been identified that a lack of B12 can nullify any benefits otherwise associated with a plant-based intake.5
It is worth speaking to a doctor to potentially get your levels checked in advance.
There are two things the average person knows about Omega-3 fatty acids. Firstly, they are beneficial for brain health, offering excellent support for people who struggle with depression and ADHD.6
Secondly, they are prevalent in fish such as salmon and sardines. To get the optimum level of Omega-3 from a vegan diet is not so simple – while there are versions of the compound in soybeans, chia seeds and walnuts among other options, the signs are that they are not sufficient to provide the bodily levels that protect against depression, brain fog and potentially breast cancer.
To get the best benefit from Omega-3, supplementation is essential on a vegan diet. You’re looking for a product with high levels of EPA and DHA, as these are the compounds that deliver the greatest benefits for ongoing good health. The Vegan Society also recommends a daily dose of 250mg as they acknowledge those following a vegan diet barely consume any of these vital fats.7
Low dietary levels of iodine have a surprisingly far-reaching set of effects, starting with the fact that people not getting enough in their diet are prone to thyroid malfunction.8
There is a link between a non-functioning thyroid and obesity.9 You’ll gain weight, have low energy levels, be more prone to depression and forgetfulness. During pregnancy, low iodine levels can have a negative effect on a child’s ability to learn, and the effect can be irreversible.
Iodised salt is one way of getting the compound in your system, and eating certain types of seaweed can also work. Aside from those, the only dietary sources are fish and dairy products10 – or to take a supplement. 150 micrograms a day should be enough for people on average, although pregnant women are advised to take more – around 220 – while those who are breastfeeding should up the dosage to 290mg a day.
It would be easier to list the bodily processes that aren’t harmed by a deficiency in vitamin D, but to take the broadest possible explanation of its importance: your mood, memory, muscle growth, and immune function all depend on reasonable levels.11
The good news for vegans is that they don’t lose out much in comparison to meat-eaters when it comes to dietary levels of vitamin D. The bad news is that meat-eaters also get low levels of vitamin D from food. While there are some foods that contain a certain level, your main source is likely to be sunlight. Unfortunately, either climate with low sunlight or the concern of skin cancers restricts people’s exposure to the needed UVB radiation.
What this means is that everyone should be supplementing vitamin D especially in the winter months, and that includes vegans, since one of the vitamin’s functions is to ensure the effective metabolism of other nutrients.12
Vitamins D2 and D3 are essential supplements – especially as gaining the requisite amount of vitamin D through sunlight require you to expose your skin, without sunscreen, to direct sunlight. You can read more about vegan vitamin D supplements, here.
Many people, perhaps motivated by the crude stereotype of a vegan diet as being insufficient for gaining strength, are reluctant to adopt the diet fully. That this impression exists is due in no small part to the fact that meat is a primary dietary source of iron. Iron boosts your immune function and protects against fatigue – and heme iron, which is found only in meat, is more readily absorbed by the body.13
You can gain some (non-heme) iron in your diet from pulses, nuts and dried fruits as well as cruciferous veg – but the most important thing is to speak with your doctor if you’re experiencing fatigue after becoming vegan.
Athletes, particularly female athletes are at the most risk of iron deficiency which can hinder performance.14
Before supplementing, you will benefit from knowing where your ferritin and hemoglobin levels are. If they’re low, supplements will help – but if they’re already high, raising them higher can actually do more harm than good.
Though foods don’t tend to be sold on the basis of their provision of high levels of zinc, the fact is that this nutrient is pretty pivotal in terms of overall body health.
An absence of zinc in your diet can lead to hair loss, delayed wound healing, diarrhea, low levels of testosterone, and even erectile dysfunction.15 16 This is why we include zinc in both of our products which you can read about, here.
In concert with protein, it has a major part to play in wellness in the long term, including with regards to cell regeneration and immune function. It can be found in whole grains, tofu, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The last three on that list will be particularly well-absorbed in the body if they are soaked overnight before consumption.
In order to ensure that you are getting enough zinc, particularly if you aren’t fond of the foods on the list above, it is worth supplementing with zinc citrate or zinc gluconate compound. Approximately 10mg a day will be enough, although lactating mothers could benefit from more, in the range of 15mg if supplements can be found in that amount.
Although the vital element that is calcium can be found in a list of vegetables that includes Bok choy, broccoli, chickpeas, and kale, the truth is that even the most assiduous vegan will struggle to get the amount that an omnivore will be able to consume.
There are arguments that vegans don’t need as much calcium, as one of its dietary roles is balancing out the acidity that a carnivorous diet can cause, but studies do show that if you are not getting the RDA of 525mg of calcium a day, you will be at increased risk of bone fractures compared to those who are.17
In truth, it is extremely difficult to eat anywhere near to that amount of calcium without having dairy products in your diet, so if you are committed to making a vegan diet work, calcium is a fundamental supplement for you to take. Along with a diet rich in vegan sources of the nutrient, this will help you avoid the worst aspects of calcium deficiency, such as reduced bone density.
Final note regarding supplements for vegans
All of the above nutrients are easily found in supplement form, and there are few risks involved in taking supplements unless otherwise indicated. However, we would recommend speaking with a doctor before making a substantial change in your diet such as switching to veganism. They, better than we ever can, will know your specific medical situation and how it may affect the benefits of diet and supplements.