When you first go vegan or start eating plant-based, you might be tempted to load up on a bunch of supplements. Thankfully, you don’t have to.
In this article, we’ll review some supplements that are worth considering and our recommended approach to supplementing on a plant-based diet.
Which supplements are necessary for vegans
The only supplement you must absolutely take on a plant-based diet is Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin).
Vitamin B12 is an important water-soluble vitamin that plays a key role in cell metabolism and red blood cell production.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to permanent neurological damage and other severe complications, including death by anemia.
Some important facts you might want to know about Vitamin B12:
- B12 can be acquired by omnivores by eating selected animal products, but contrary to popular belief, it is not made by animals. It’s actually produced by bacteria.
- In our ultra-sanitized world, we no longer have easy access to B12 as it occurs in nature. For example, water in a stream will typically have B12. Our tap water won’t. This sanitization is great as it prevents a host of diseases, but it means that we need to ensure our B12 intake comes from elsewhere.
- Plant foods, with the exception of a recently discovered water lentil, do not contain vitamin B12. So supplementation is a must if you don’t eat animal products.
- Even omnivores can be B12 deficient.
- The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include numbness or tingling of the extremities, difficulty walking or coordinating, difficulty thinking or remembering, weakness and fatigue, a swollen tongue, etc.
- It takes months (or even years) to develop a deficiency to B12. Testing your levels with a blood test a couple of times a year is a good idea.
- Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid) is often tested at the same time as B12 as a deficiency in folate presents itself with similar symptoms as a B12 deficiency. Unlike B12, a balanced plant-based diet will meet folate requirements (a cup of lentils will have 90% of the daily requirements, for example).
- Since it’s a water-soluble vitamin, excess B12 will be excreted through the urine. So, unlike fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, K, D, and E, there aren’t major concerns of hypervitaminosis if taken in excess. That said, people affected by Leber’s Disease should avoid supplemental B12 and discuss their situation with a medical professional.
- There are two active forms of vitamin B12: methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin. Since methylcobalamin is contained within animal products, vegans supplementing B12 are likely taking the synthetic form of cyanocobalamin which is converted into methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin by the body.
- Vitamin B12 is absorbed within the small intestine thanks to a glycoprotein called Intrinsic Factor (IF), produced in the stomach by parietal cells.
- B12 absorption decreases with age, digestive disorders, and while taking selected medicines (including heartburn medicines and Metformin for diabetes).
- Some people lack intrinsic factor due to an autoimmune condition that attacks said parietal cells. These people are the ones most likely to develop pernicious anemia and are required to inject vitamin B12 to bypass the digestive system. Intrinsic factor deficiency is thankfully a rare condition and can be easily diagnosed by a lack of vitamin B12 in conjunction with the presence of IF antibodies.
In fact, many plant-based milks and meat substitutes are fortified with B12. Check the nutritional labels to see what percentage of the daily value (DV%) you are already ingesting. If you consume enough of these products throughout the day and easily exceed 100% already, you might not need additional supplementation.
If you’re not, perhaps because you’re following a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based diet, then supplementing with pills or a spray is a must.
The official daily requirements are considered somewhat low by many doctors. When taking absorption rates into account, it might make sense to take a larger dose because there is no established tolerable upper intake level (UL) and you’ll simply expel through your urine the excess. Many experts recommend 2,500-3,500 mcg once a week or, if you prefer, 50-200 mcg daily.
If you are already taking a high-quality multivitamin, check the label as it might already include an adequate amount of B12.
B12 is a must for vegans and plant-based eaters, so we felt we had to dig deeper with our coverage of the topic. Now that you know which supplements are necessary for vegans, let’s discuss other supplements worth considering.
Recommended supplements for vegans
Vitamin B12 is a given, but what else should vegans/plant-based eaters supplement?
- Vitamin D: Unless you spend a lot of time in the sun every day year-round, you are unlikely to obtain enough vitamin D from the sun. Supplementation via fortified foods or via supplement pills is recommended. Aim for 1,000–4,000 IU per day. Keep in mind that Vitamin D is often derived from sheep, so you might want to opt for vegan Vitamin D.
- Iodine: As a vegan or committed plant-based eater, you’re not consuming dairy or seafood which are sources of iodine for omnivores. If you eat sea plants such as kelp, nori, kombu, and wakame quite often, you’re likely okay, though their iodine content is quite variable so you should still have your levels tested. Otherwise, it’s not a bad idea to supplement your iodine intake by either using iodized salt or through a supplement. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for iodine is 150 mcg (220 mcg if pregnant and 290 mcg if breastfeeding) approximately half a teaspoon of iodized salt per day.
How to decide which supplements to take
Generally speaking, we believe that supplementation should only be used when requirements cannot be realistically met via diet alone.
Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, seaweeds, nuts, seeds, and legumes and you’ll likely cover most of your micronutrients requirement (vitamin B12 and vitamin D excluded).
How do you know if you are introducing a deficiency with your dietary choices?
One first line of defense is tracking your food intake via a tool like Cronometer which keeps track of the nutrients and micronutrients (specifically, vitamins and minerals) you are consuming. You don’t have to do it forever, but tracking for a month or so should give you a general idea.
There are still issues of GI malabsorption and nutrient depletion, so an even better solution is to have blood tests done from time to time. If you have a deficiency, it’s likely to show up in your blood work results. Doctors become a lot less hesitant to prescribe full blood panels the moment you mention you’ve gone vegan!
Once you determined that a particular deficiency does exist, and it’s not easily fixed with dietary adjustments, then supplementation becomes a viable option.
So our philosophy is to supplement what you cannot reasonably obtain from your plant-based diet.
Just make sure to buy vegan supplements, since many supplements are either derived from animals or the capsule they come in contains animal-derived gelatin.
Many vegan supplements will advertise that they are vegan. Others might advertise that the capsules themselves are vegetarian, which is also fine provided the content of the capsules does not originate from animals.
Optional vegan supplements worth considering
The following are not required supplements but are likely to be beneficial to some vegans.
As always, get tested and see if deficiencies exist prior to buying a giant pill dispenser for your daily supplements.
- Vitamin K2: Works well in conjunction with vitamin D and appears to be beneficial to both your bone and cardiovascular health. Unlike Vitamin K1 which is abundant in leafy greens, K2 is only found in animal products and fermented soy (e.g., natto). If you don’t eat such foods, consider supplementing it.
- DHA and EPA: Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA can be converted by our bodies from Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). Vegan foods rich in ALA include chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Unfortunately, this conversion process is very inefficient, so out of caution, some people opt to supplement with Algae Oil which contains DHA and EPA. The algae are where the fish get their Omega-3 in the first place, and unlike fish oil, it’s entirely vegan. The evidence that Omega-3 supplementation is required is a little shaky and currently disputed. Nevertheless, if you wish to take it for peace of mind, know that you have vegan options. If you opt not to take it, make sure you consume plenty of ALA-rich foods in your diet.
- Calcium: If you put some thought in your diet and eat calcium-rich foods (or fortified plant-based milk), you are unlikely to require calcium supplementation. Some vegans will fail to do so, however, and should consider supplementation. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no real evidence that moderate calcium supplementation causes any health issues. Just don’t overdo it, and try to obtain most of your calcium from real food.
- Iron: Whether you are vegan or not, quite a few people are affected by iron deficiencies. Vegan women who get their period, in particular, are likely to struggle with adequate levels of this mineral. Should your blood test show a low level of ferritin, taking an iron supplement or a multivitamin that includes iron is recommended. (Upping your vitamin C would also be beneficial to improve iron absorption.) Make sure you don’t go over 45 mg of total iron intake per day, as iron overload over time can increase the risk of serious medical conditions including cancer and heart failure.
- Creatine: A staple for bodybuilders, regardless of their diet, creatine supplementation appears to be particularly beneficial for vegans who are quite active. It also appears to offer cognitive benefits for vegans who might otherwise not produce enough of their own. Assuming you don’t have a history of kidney stones or other kidney problems, adding a few grams of creatine to your smoothie once a day might be a good idea. Plant-based athletes might also want to consider L-Carnitine and Beta-Alanine to maximize their performance. (People taking beta-alanine might experience paraesthesia which is a tingling sensation of the skin. This is benign and expected.)
Should you take a multivitamin if you are vegan?
The only question that remains to be answered is whether you should take a multivitamin to cover your bases.
You really don’t need to on a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet, but if you choose to, make sure that it’s one that doesn’t introduce imbalances or that is very high in fat-soluble vitamins.
That’s because your body doesn’t flush them out through the urine and they will accumulate to toxic levels over time.
A lot of micronutrients we eat need to be in balance with other micronutrients in order not to cause metabolic problems. For example, Omega-3 and Omega-6 need to be assumed in a certain ratio, so do zinc and copper, potassium and sodium, and calcium and magnesium, to name a few.
If the multivitamin you take goes to town on one particular mineral, it could cause health problems. Make sure that if you do take a multivitamin, it’s a well-formulated, balanced one.
As with all things in life, moderation is key. Don’t rush out to buy a whole pharmacy’s worth of supplements just because you switched to a plant-based diet. On the other hand, be smart about it and ensure you are not ignoring any important deficiencies that you might introduce.
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