We don't need to tell you that a vegan diet is overwhelmingly good for your body.
You are probably already aware that it's been proven to be true time and time again, with health professionals from esteemed cardiologists to dietetics experts promoting the health benefits of a plant-based diet for people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, and activity levels.
Still, the health potential of well-planned vegan diets can quickly become invalidated if your nutritional needs are not met. Of course, this is far from being a vegan-only issue: according to recent data, diets of more than 90% of Americans fall short in providing the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) or Adequate Intake (AI) for one or more vitamins and minerals.
These figures can be linked to poor diet choices that exclude seeds, fruits, and vegetables from one's daily intake, as well as to a general lack of adequate supplementation and fortified foods. So, how can we avoid nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet, living our best vegan lives in a way that will motivate and inspire everyone around us to give the animal products-free lifestyle a try?
The short answer to this question is to follow a nutritionally dense whole food plant-based diet and to take a handful of high-quality daily supplements.
The longer answer to the same question is… well, you might just have to keep reading!
What Nutrients Do Vegans Lack?
Before we go any further, it's important to know that following a whole food plant-based diet will ensure you are getting enough macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals to cover the majority of your nutritional needs. Being conscious of your food choices every day will allow you to require only a small amount of essential supplements, rather than getting the majority of your nutrients from hard-to-swallow pills.
What does this type of diet look like in practice? If you consider yourself a health-conscious vegan, you might have been following this diet the whole time. We are talking about foods like nuts and seeds (peanut butter counts too!), fresh and dried fruits, green leafy vegetables, fiber-rich starchy veg, legumes, and whole grains. If you usually start your day with a fresh smoothie or hearty oatmeal bowl, have a hummus wrap or Buddha Bowl for lunch, and a chickpea and spinach curry for dinner, we can safely say that you're on the right track.
Adopting a nutrient-dense whole food diet leaves vegans with just a handful of other essential nutrients they have to supplement daily: vitamin B12, omega-3, vitamin D, and iodine. Unsurprisingly, these vitamins and minerals are harder to get enough of on any diet, as they are often added in fortified foods for non-vegans too!
Ah, yes. The infamous vitamin you have probably been taunted with since the day you came out as a vegan.
Vitamin B12, also known as Cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin that holds two really important functions: maintaining the structure of our nervous system and helping with the production of red blood cells. Along with folic acid, vitamin B12 is essential to utilize the iron in our bodies and to release energy from the food we consume. The most common telltale signs that you're not getting enough B12 or folate from your diet include chronic fatigue, lethargy, muscle weakness, brain fog, and even severe psychological problems like depression. In more extreme cases, vitamin B12 deficiency can severely impact our nervous system by causing vision impairments and memory loss.
As "where do you get your vitamin B12?" became the new "where do you get your protein?", we were all forced to take a long, hard look at this essential vitamin that was relatively undiscussed before veganism boomed all over the world. Vitamin B12 deficiency, however, has been a widespread issue for decades due to the increasing depletion of our soils.
In fact, B12-producing bacteria used to be ubiquitous in soil and water in pre-modern times, but pesticides and other modern agricultural practices, as well as animal agriculture standards moving away from grass-feeding, have ultimately cut down this bacterial population. Today's cattle are given B12 supplements to make up for the lack of natural sources, so vegans who do not consume any animal products are left with little alternative but to just supplement this nutrient directly.
There are no real vegan sources of B12 with the exception of fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, soy milk, marmite, and vegan meat substitutes. As the RDI recommended for adults is approximately 2.4 mcg per day, vegans should always make sure they are taking a vitamin B12 supplement daily to get the amount they need.
EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are often overlooked when talking about nutrients and vitamins for vegans, but they are essential for protecting your body from heart disease by curbing inflammation, regulating "good" cholesterol, and reducing blood pressure. On top of that, omega-3 fatty acids are important for optimal brain and liver function.
There are three main types of dietary omega-3s: EPA and DHA, found in seafood and fish, and ALA, found in high-fat plant foods. Vegan sources of ALA omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and Brussels sprouts. Both the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority recommend a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA per day for adults. Unfortunately for vegans, your body cannot easily convert ALA omega-3 fatty acids into EPA and DHA, which non-vegans can only get from a small handful of dietary sources such as fatty fish, oysters, and fish oil.
So, where can vegans get their omega-3, if not from plant foods? Algae-based DHA supplements are going to be your best bet.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin produced by the body through sun exposure, assisting in the absorption of calcium, insulin regulation, and overall support of the immune and nervous systems. Vitamin D is actually a cluster of vitamins: vitamin D2 and D3 are the two most common vitamin D types found in diets — the former found in fortified foods like breakfast cereal and UV light-grown mushrooms, while the latter can only be found in animal products such as egg yolk, liver, butter, and fish oil. Vegans should be aware that there is a growing amount of research suggesting that vitamin D2 is less effective than vitamin D3 at raising blood levels of vitamin D.
Sun exposure on bare skin for approximately 10 minutes, two or three times per week, will allow most people to produce sufficient vitamin D for what their body needs. However, vitamin D tends to break down quite quickly, meaning that body stores can run low over the winter, especially in parts of the world that are frequently overcast.
This is why everyone, regardless of their dietary habits, is recommended to supplement vitamin D3 through either fortified foods or supplements, with 10mcg of vitamin D per day being the recommended intake for adults.
Iodine is an essential mineral needed to make thyroid hormones—hormones that control our metabolic system, as well as bone and brain development. Iodine deficiency in pregnancy has been recognized as a worldwide health concern, as it has been identified as the leading cause of preventable brain damage in newborns and infants. These concerning figures have led to the widespread popularity of iodized table salt, and iodine supplements have become a routine recommendation for pregnant women and infants all over the world.
Natural dietary sources of iodine are unfortunately quite rare on a vegan diet, as the amount of iodine found in plants depends entirely on soil quality, making it a pretty unreliable source for vegans who don't supplement. Other sources like seaweed, seafood, and saltwater fish are considered adequate as long as they can provide an adult with approximately 150mcg of iodine per day.
And Other Essential Nutrients You Might Want to Consider...
The above nutrients make for the bare minimum for vegans who are considering supplement options. Depending on your age, gender, and other personal specifications (such as being pregnant, lactating, or suffering from anemia), you might want to look into taking other daily supplements to get your health on track. Remember that whole foods-centered vegan diets are able to provide the majority of what we need in order to thrive, so you should always consult with your doctor or get blood work done before making any decisions.
Iron is an essential mineral playing a fundamental role in forming the red blood cells that carry oxygen to your lungs and to the rest of your body. Some of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency, also known as anemia, include extreme fatigue, dizziness, chest pain, pale skin, cold extremities, and shortness of breath.
Iron from food comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found only in animal foods such as meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is instead found in plant foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens. Vegans should be easily getting enough non-heme iron if following a health-promoting whole foods diet, but research shows that our actual iron absorption might not be as reliable as we think. Different foods and substances can reduce the amount of non-heme iron we absorb, including coffee or tea, dairy, fiber, and some types of chocolate.
The RDA for adults is approximately 8mcg per day. As self-diagnosing iron deficiency is highly discouraged, you should consult with your doctor before taking any iron supplements. In fact, excess iron accumulation can damage your liver and cause other dangerous complications — something you definitely don't want to play around with!
A few recent studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans tend to have slightly lower levels of zinc in their blood compared to meat-eaters. Not all vegans will be part of these figures, of course, but this mineral is definitely something to watch out for, as an insufficient intake of zinc has been linked to developmental problems, hair loss, diarrhea, and delayed wound healing.
Zinc is needed for a number of processes in our bodies, including protein and DNA synthesis, wound healing, growth and development, and immune function. Vegans can get their zinc from plant foods such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables like kale, peas, and asparagus.
If you find you are not eating enough of these zinc-rich foods, or have been experiencing health issues pointing to zinc deficiency, you might want to book in a blood test to assess whether zinc supplements would work for you.
Selenium is an odd one. Described as an essential trace element, this is a nutrient we only need a very small amount of in our diets. However tiny an amount, it’s still crucial for optimal health. We need selenium for our thyroid gland, DNA production, reproductive system, and immune system to function as they should.
Consuming a variety of selenium-rich plant foods such as whole grains, tofu, and Brazil nuts should be enough for vegans to get their recommended 55 mcg per day. Selenium deficiency has been linked to reproductive health issues in both women and men, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, mood changes, and cardiovascular disease.
For vegans, one Brazil nut a day should do the trick, however, supplements are a valuable option for those who either don't like them or cannot access this selenium-rich nut!
If you have grown up with the constant mantra of "milk makes your bones strong!" or any other overly enthusiastic marketing slogans for dairy foods, you know that calcium plays a major role in bone formation and growth — a nutrient that's usually synonymous with milk and cheese.
Vegans know, however, that dairy products are far from being the only dietary sources of this essential mineral. Good plant sources of calcium include foods such as green leafy vegetables (spinach excluded!), cruciferous veg, tofu, tahini, dried fruits, pulses, and fortified foods such as plant milks. An optimal intake of vitamin D on a vegan diet is essential in order to absorb calcium, so if your calcium levels are low despite consuming calcium-rich foods and supplements, you might want to look into your vitamin D intake for answers.
As always, you should only start taking a calcium supplement if recommended by your primary care physician.
Vitamin K, and especially vitamin K2, is an often overlooked fat-soluble vitamin cluster which is essential for our blood clotting process and optimal kidney function. While vitamin K1 is found in an abundance of plant foods (cabbage, kale, broccoli, spring onions, and kiwis just to name a few), vitamin K2 is only found in very small amounts in some types of animal products. There is also a bacteria found in some types of fermented plant foods, such as the Japanese soy product natto, that is able to convert vitamin K1 into K2. Much like marmite or licorice, natto is definitely one of those "love it or hate it" foods, so vegans, and especially vegans living in the West, should not be relying on this peculiar bacteria to get enough vitamin K2.
So, what dietary options are there for those on a vegan diet? Well, the good news is that some studies have shown that our intestinal flora might be able to produce vitamin K2 on its own. On top of that, vitamin K2 appears to be far less important for kidney and blood clotting function, and only plays a minor role in bone health.
The vitamin K debate is still much of a work in progress, and you should only be looking into vegan vitamin K2 supplements after a doctor's recommendation.
Does This Mean That a Vegan Diet Is Not Really Healthy for Us?
After dealing with such a long list of vitamins and minerals that vegan diets are believed to lack, it's only natural that you may be wondering if eating vegan is the right choice for your health. Having to take a supplement to get essential nutrients might seem counterintuitive, as many people conflate the concepts of "natural" and "not natural" with "healthy" and "unhealthy." Truth is, this is all but a misconception.
As we have touched on earlier, essential nutrients like vitamin B12 and iodine used to be much easier for our bodies to produce and absorb, regardless of diet, due to living in a different environment than what we are accustomed to today. Pesticides are necessary to make our produce safer, yet they deplete our soil of the bacteria and minerals our ancestors relied on to get their nutrients.
This has impacted food science and nutrition as a whole, with fortified foods and over-the-counter multivitamins becoming the norm all over the world. Iodized table salt, vitamin D-fortified cereal, calcium-fortified bread, and many more fortified food products are an important part of a standard diet, so there is absolutely nothing unhealthy about needing to supplement — in some way or another, everyone does it.
On top of that, note that you will be getting a whole lot more of other essential vitamins and minerals from vegan food sources than many people on a standard diet do: vitamin C, A, E, potassium, and magnesium are just some of the nutrients that are abundant in plant-based diets.
So, What Supplements Should I Take as a Vegan?
Vegans, regardless of how health-promoting their daily eating habits might be, should always supplement vitamin B12, EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D3.
Unless seaweed varieties like kelp, wakame, and nori or iodized table salt are a staple in your diet, you should also make sure to supplement iodine. Note that you are very unlikely to hit an excess amount of this nutrient if you are taking a supplement along with using iodized salt on a daily basis. In fact, iodized salt usually adds less than about 300 mcg of iodine per day to the diet, while most supplements contain only about 150 mcg of iodine. With the safe upper limit of daily iodine intake set at 1,100 mcg for adults, you are guaranteed to be in the clear no matter your seaweed and iodized table salt intake — though you might want to watch your sodium intake for health reasons nonetheless!
Make sure to check where your omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D3 supplements are coming from too, as the most popular and cheapest sources for supplementation are often animal-derived.
Is a Multivitamin Enough for a Vegan?
You’re probably not too fond of the idea of having countless supplement bottles cluttering your bedside table and medicine cabinet. You are also quite unlikely to be a big fan of spending tons of money every month so you can refill your supplement stash, which only seems to be getting bigger and bigger as time goes by.
If this sounds like you, you might want to opt for a good vegan multivitamin that will conveniently cover all of your nutritional requirements — no hassle, no clutter, no endless spending sprees.
But can you really get enough of all of your essential vitamins and minerals from a multivitamin alone? Well, that will largely depend on two factors: your individual nutritional requirements and the supplement brand you’ll pick to do the job.
We recommend getting an extensive blood test after going vegan and talking to your doctor about your diet habits and possible deficiency symptoms to assess whether an iron, zinc, or calcium supplement might be the best choice for your individual requirements. Next, we recommend you invest in a premium-quality multivitamin that will cover all your nutritional needs as a vegan without any excess nutrients you don't need, such as vitamin C and potassium.
Future Kind Essential Multivitamin is a clean option free of additives, designed to only get you a safe and adequate amount of the vegan essentials (omega-3, vitamin D3, and B12) so you can look after your health with just one easy-to-swallow pill per day. We've got you covered on the iodine front too.
Thriving as a vegan is really quite simple, so don't overcomplicate it! Base your daily meals around nutrient-dense whole plant foods, stay in touch with your doctor, and opt for supplementation that caters to your vegan needs. Everything else will fall into place.