If you’re vegan, you’ve probably wondered, “What supplements should I be taking?” The answer is: it depends. It depends on what you eat, your lifestyle and where you live. Supplementation should be individualized as everyone is different.
In a follow up to my general post on dietary supplements, here is the requested post specifically on dietary supplements for vegans! This is general information and I encourage you to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to determine if/what supplements you may need. This information is for healthy adults; not pregnant, breast-feeding or older adults.
Some people say a vegan diet isn’t natural because it requires supplementation and/or fortification. Well, what is “natural” these days, anyway? It’s clear that a vegan diet is the best for the health of animals and the planet, and if that requires me to supplement, then so be it. When we’re in a position of privilege to choose what we eat, I find it’s our responsibility to make conscious decisions that lessen the exploitation of animals and humans as well as the burden of climate change on the rest of the world.
I’d also like to point out that many meat-eaters need to supplement as well. And in general, vegans have better nutrient intakes than meat-eaters because they’re eating more nutrient-dense plant foods including vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Whatever your dietary choices, it’s important to get enough essential nutrients. If you’re not able to do that through food, talk with a dietitian about supplement options.
If you asked me if there was one thing I wish every vegan knew, it would be that the only reliable vegan sources of vitamin B12 are fortified foods and supplements. There is too much misinformation floating around about mushrooms, seaweed, unwashed produce and other plant foods containing vitamin B12. They don’t. You have to eat fortified foods and/or take a supplement. B12 is a water soluble vitamin (meaning you pee out what you don’t use) and it’s very affordable in supplement form. There is no excuse not to get your B12.
I wrote extensively about vitamin B12 here and link to lots of resources if you want to learn more.
To get enough vitamin B12, “The Vegan RD” Ginny Messina, co-author of Vegan for Life, recommends one of the following:
Eat fortified foods with 2-3.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 twice per day
Supplement with 25-100 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily
Supplement with 1000 micrograms of vitamin B12 once per week
Note: I recommend sublingual (under the tongue) vitamin B12 supplements for better absorption.
Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is synthesized by our bodies when our skin is exposed to UV light. Regardless of your diet, there are many factors that could prevent you from making adequate vitamin D, including dark skin tone and living at a high latitude (where the sun’s rays aren’t very strong). This is not a vegan-specific issue. In fact, 1 billion people are vitamin D deficient or insufficient worldwide.
There are just a few food sources that contain vitamin D naturally, and none of them are vegan. There are some mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light that contain vitamin D but be sure to check the label and do not assume all mushrooms contain vitamin D.
To get enough vitamin D, do one of the following:
Eat fortified foods with at least 600 IU of vitamin D daily
*Supplement with at least 600 IU of vitamin D daily
*The ideal vitamin D intake is highly contested. There is evidence suggesting we need much more than 600 IU per day (more like at least 1000 IU per day) and I tend to err on the high side. I personally become vitamin D deficient just about every winter (I schedule my annual blood work in March to see what happens after the long, dark winter) and have trouble keeping my levels up. Before you take more than 1000 IU per day, talk to your doctor. The Tolerable Upper Intake level of vitamin D is 4000 IU for adults. If deficient, your health care provider may recommend very high doses, but only do so under their guidance.
Note: vitamin D2 is the vegan form of vitamin D. If a label says D3 from lichen, that is vegan too.
DHA and EPA
These long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for heart health. Chia, flax (make sure its ground so you actually absorb the nutrients) and walnuts are good sources of ALA, which our bodies can turn into DHA and EPA. The issue is many people have low conversion rates so taking a vegan DHA and EPA supplement offers some peace of mind.
Vegan DHA and EPA comes from algae, which is where fish get it (that is why fatty fish such as salmon are touted as such a good source of omega-3s). There are several kinds of vegan DHA and EPA supplements on the market.
Omega-3 needs vary by sex (adult females need 1.1 grams/day and men need 1.6 grams/day) but generally, aim to:
Eat 1-2 servings of ALA-rich foods daily
Supplement with 200-300 milligrams of vegan DHA and EPA every 2-3 days (per Jack Norris’s recommendations)
Other nutrients to be mindful of (and may require supplementation depending on your diet):
While it is possible to get enough calcium from plant foods, some people fall short. In that case, it might be a good idea to take a supplement.
Good sources of calcium include calcium-fortified milks, cooked greens and calcium-set tofu. If you’re not eating a few servings of these foods every day (to total 1,000 milligrams), then consider making up the difference with a calcium supplement.
I love talking about iodine because it’s often forgotten in discussions about plant-based nutrition. Meat eaters get iodine from cow’s milk and sea animals. Vegans get it from sea plants, iodized salt and supplements.
Salt used in processed foods is not iodized. And with the trend of using sea salt at home, I fear many people are not getting enough iodine (unless you’re eating sea vegetables every day, which most people are not).
Just ½ teaspoon iodized salt contains all the iodine you need for the day. I recommend cooking and salting with iodized salt at home.
There is plenty of iron to go around in the plant kingdom but if you’re prone to iron-deficiency anemia (typically if you’re a menstruating person or athlete), supplements may be necessary.
One way to increase the iron you absorb from food is to eat vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods. Vitamin C-rich foods include strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes and citrus. Plant-based sources of iron include beans and lentils, spinach, swiss chard, tempeh, almonds and pistachios.
Also, do not drink coffee or tea or take calcium supplements with iron-containing foods as they inhibit absorption. (This is why you won’t find a supplement that’s high in both iron and calcium — which is tough because these are two important nutrients for women — and if you need to supplement with both, you need to do them at different times of day).
The information presented here is not to be misconstrued as individual medical advice. Always talk to your doctor before taking any dietary supplements. I highly recommend the book Vegan For Life for more information about vegan nutrition and supplementation. If you’re looking for personalized guidance, talk with a registered dietitian nutritionist.