One of the most common myths is that vegans can’t get enough nutrients from food alone and must supplement the deficiencies.
Is that fact or fiction?
Food supplements can supplement specific nutrients lacking in our diet if we do not eat enough balanced and nutrient-rich food. Processed and nutrient-depleted foods saturated with salt, sugars, and bad fats increase the need for food supplements. However, it can happen to people in all groups, including omnivores and vegans.
In this article, you can read more about whether you can meet the daily nutrient requirements with a plant-based diet, whether vegans are more exposed to nutrient deficiencies, and what supplements are best to choose when following a plant-based diet.
Can You Be Vegan Without Supplements?
With careful planning and a balanced diet, vegans can obtain all essential nutrients from plant-based sources except vitamin B12, which is significantly deficient in food or in an inactive form that is poorly absorbed.
Regarding nutrients, it’s all about striking the right balance in your diet and ensuring you get all the essential nutrients from various plant-based sources. Then, with a bit of mindful planning and a colorful, wholesome approach to eating, you can enjoy a thriving, vegan lifestyle.
|Higher risk of deficiency|
(recommended use of nutritional supplements)
|Other deficiency related nutrients on a vegan diet |
|Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids|
Vitamin B12 is crucial in red blood cell formation and maintaining a healthy nervous system. Deficiencies can result in anemia and a range of nervous system issues. Cobalamin, the primary source of vitamin B12, is predominantly found in animal-based foods such as meat, fish, and dairy products. While freshwater sources and seaweed contain some vitamin B12, the amounts are insufficient to fulfill daily requirements.
Although certain processed foods, including cereals, soy beverages, and nutritional yeast, are fortified with cobalamin, they may not provide adequate levels to meet dietary needs. Consequently, vegan sources of vitamin B12 are limited.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 for adults is 2.5 µg, with increased requirements for elderly and pregnant women. Blood tests can determine vitamin B12 levels, allowing for appropriate dosage adjustments.
When selecting a vitamin B12 supplement, it is vital to choose one containing biologically active forms of cobalamin, namely methylcobalamin, and adenosylcobalamin. Ideally, these forms should be in a 4:1 ratio to ensure optimal absorption and efficacy.
Vitamin D plays an essential role in the health of the immune system, bones, teeth, and muscles. It is also needed for calcium absorption.
There is little, if any, vitamin D in the food. Some fish and shellfish contain it, but these quantities are too small, even for omnivores.
Vitamin D deficiency affects everyone, not just vegans. The deficiency is related to whether we spend enough time in the sun because vitamin D is synthesized by the skin when we are exposed to sunlight.
The recommended daily dose for adults is 5 μg. The need for vitamin D increases in winter when the sun is not high enough and our skin is not exposed to the sun. Supplementing is also recommended for everyone who spends much time indoors.
Vegan food supplements are available, where vitamin D is not obtained from lanolin (a substance from sheep skin) but most often from microalgae. For bone health, it makes sense for vitamin D to be combined with vitamin K, ensuring calcium is well distributed throughout the body.
Calcium is a vital mineral within the body since it keeps bones and teeth healthy. It is also essential for proper muscle contraction and transmission of nerve signals. Its deficiency results in lower bone density, which may lead to osteoporosis.
Although milk and dairy products are considered the richest calcium sources, nuts are also rich in calcium. Therefore, it is important to include as many almonds, Brazil nuts, and soy products such as tofu in a plant-based diet. With this, we meet our daily calcium needs. In addition, many plant-based drinks are also enriched with calcium.
Everyone who consumes food grown on soil with a low selenium content is exposed to selenium deficiency. Certain areas have soil depleted of nutrients, and grains, vegetables, and fruits are also low in selenium content.
Foods must have organic certification, which gives us proof of the soil quality on which the crops (especially grains) were grown. At the same time, as vegans, we must consume selenium-rich foods, such as Brazil nuts, cashews, chickpeas, and mushrooms.
The mineral selenium is part of selenoproteins, which play an important role in reproduction, thyroid hormones, and DNA formation and protect against oxidative damage and infections.
Iron is important for red blood cell production, DNA formation, and optimal oxygen delivery to the blood. The main symptoms of iron deficiency are anemia, lethargy, and fatigue.
Non-heme iron from plant food sources is not absorbed in the body as efficiently as heme iron, which is found only in animal products. Therefore, when consuming non-heme iron from a plant-based diet, it is vital also to eat foods rich in vitamin C, increasing iron absorption.
To determine whether nutritional supplements are necessary, we should do a lab check of hemoglobin, iron, and ferritin levels. Unnecessary iron supplementation can also have a negative impact on the body.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
We must also provide the body with unsaturated fats, which are important for a healthy cardiovascular system, maintaining brain and eye health, and having an anti-inflammatory function.
On a plant-based diet, these are omega-6 fatty acids high in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), primarily found in soy, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids, mostly found in fatty fish, are also important. Essential acids include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), whose health effects we attribute.
There has to be a balanced ratio between all fatty acids. Therefore, vegans can supplement omega-3 fatty acids. In vegan supplements, omega-3 is obtained from various microalgae, usually in oils.
What Supplement Would You Recommend to a Vegan?
If we eat a plant-based diet, we risk certain deficiencies in the long run, considering if we don’t eat enough balanced and nutrient-dense foods.
Research suggests that vegans are most at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because cobalamin is poorly represented in a plant-based diet. Another vitamin recommended for supplementation is vitamin D, to which all groups or the general population are exposed to deficiency.
Which Supplements Are Recommended for a Pregnant Woman Who is Vegan?
Pregnant women have somewhat different nutritional demands, mostly higher intake requirements for certain vitamins and minerals. However, this applies to vegan and non-vegan women. Some dietary recommendations are linked to vegan pregnant women. Which nutrients should vegan pregnant women pay special attention to or might even supplement?
Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for a child’s brain development. Since the body can only convert some DHA fatty acids from the consumed ALA plant fatty acids, it is necessary to increase the intake of ALA fatty acids or use dietary supplements.
Research has shown that vitamin B12 intake and status are lower in pregnant women following a plant-based diet compared to pregnant women who consume a typical Western diet. Vitamin B12 requirements increase during pregnancy.
Research has shown that most pregnant women fail to achieve the recommended daily intake of the mineral zinc. This applies to non-vegan and vegan pregnant women. This is because zinc requirements increase significantly during pregnancy, from 9 to 15 milligrams daily. Women can fill this gap with good food plant-based sources of zinc, such as nuts, whole grains, and legumes, or with quality supplements.
Folic acid is one of the most important vitamins of pregnancy because it plays a role in the normal development of the fetal brain and the neural tube. Usually, pregnant women take folic acid with a food supplement. Interestingly, studies have shown that vegan pregnant women have higher levels of folic acid in their blood than omnivores. This is because folate is found in most vegetables, particularly grains, beans, and leafy green vegetables.
Do Vegan Babies Need Supplements?
Vegan breastfed babies get all the nutrients they need from breast milk. If the mother eats a balanced and nutrient-rich plant-based diet, the baby will also get all the nutrients for healthy development. If the mother is not breastfeeding, infant formulas are designed to meet the needs of infants and contain all the nutrients.
When the baby is at least six months old, we can offer him smooth or mashed foods that he can eat without teeth unless you are practicing BLW (baby-led weaning). On a plant-based diet, a baby must eat enough:
- Iron-rich foods such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils,
- fortified foods with vitamin B12, such as fortified soy milk or yogurts, and
- essential fatty acids, such as ground linseed, chia seeds, and ground walnuts.
Many pediatricians prescribe vitamin D, usually in drops, to ensure optimal bone development and growth levels. Just check whether the vitamin D in the food supplement is vegan, which means it is obtained from microalgae and does not contain auxiliary substances.
What Supplements Do Vegan Toddlers Need?
Toddlers who eat a healthy and balanced plant-based diet need only vitamin B12 supplements. However, we need to pay more attention to children who are extremely picky eaters and have trouble eating various foods, which is why they might be at risk for deficiency in certain nutrient groups.
Parents must incorporate enough plant foods that naturally contain or are fortified with specific nutrients, especially those not widely represented in a plant-based diet. These are mainly vitamin B12, iron, iodine, zinc, omega-3 fats, and calcium. Vitamin B12 remains the most important, as it is the hardest to obtain in the body only through food.
When choosing nutritional supplements, it is important to opt for the ones verified and certified for the dietary needs of younger children. In addition, doses of vitamins and minerals should be adjusted to the daily requirements of a particular age group.
What Supplements Should Vegan Athletes Take?
Athletes’ daily needs for protein are higher than those who do not exercise as much. This is because proteins are essential to build and restore body tissues, including muscle regeneration after exercise.
Supplementing with protein powders and amino acids is unnecessary if we ensure enough intake of proteins from plant foods, which are broken down into amino acids as efficiently as proteins from food of animal origin.
Vegan athletes can meet increased protein needs with protein-rich plant-based foods, including legumes, grains, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Seitan, tofu, and tempeh are especially rich in proteins.
A plant-based diet can meet the nutrient needs of most people with one exception – vitamin B12. Therefore, vegans should be taking vitamin B12 supplements or opt for fortified foods.
Some nutrients might be tricky for vegans to get through food alone, so it is vital to pay more attention to the food choices to provide nutrients from all groups that our body needs. But we can also opt for dietary supplements. These nutrients include vitamin D, calcium, essential fatty acids, zinc, iron, and selenium.
The most reliable method that answers the question “do vegans need supplements” is a lab test for vitamin and mineral levels in the blood. Only this way we can know whether we suffer from a deficiency and, based on the data, decide whether to increase the intake of certain foods or choose vegan supplements.
Vitamin or mineral deficiency depends on many factors, as our bodies have different needs and react differently to various factors.