Whether you are transitioning to a vegan lifestyle or have been vegan for some time, it is important to be sure you are obtaining all the nutrients you need. A vegan diet has many advantages, but because certain nutrients are hard to find in plant foods, it does take some research and planning to ensure you are eating properly.
Fortunately, many dietary supplements are available to help you reach your nutritional needs. A vegan diet is nutritionally very different from a diet including animal products, so it is important to choose supplements with your unique needs as a vegan in mind. In this article, I will list the supplements vegans should take for optimum health. For each nutrient, I will outline its role in the body, its sources, and reasons to consider supplementing.
Long-chain n-3 fatty acids
The long-chain n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are important for cardiovascular, eye and brain health. These nutrients are mainly found in fish, eggs and seaweed, so it may be difficult for vegans to consume enough of them.
A third long-chain n-3 fatty acid called ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA, but only with low efficiency. ALA is found in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy, and hemp seed, so this fatty acid is easier to obtain in a vegan diet. Another option is to take microalgae supplements containing DHA. The DHA in these supplements can be retroconverted to EPA, so they account for all n-3 fatty acid requirements. Excessive DHA can cause side effects, so do not take more than the recommended amount.
Vitamin D is needed to regulate parathyroid hormone and to maintain bone density. It can be obtained through sun exposure as well as food sources. The main dietary source of vitamin D is milk, so vegans tend to consume significantly less vitamin D than vegetarians or meat eaters. The risk of vitamin D deficiency is greater people with dark skin, people who have limited sun exposure, and the elderly. For vegans, the only dietary source of vitamin D is vitamin D-fortified foods such as soy milk, orange juice or cereal. Taking vitamin D supplements regularly will ensure adequate intake and keep your bones strong and healthy.
Adequate levels of iron are needed in the blood for the formation of the protein hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which is characterized by low levels of hemoglobin and causes symptoms including poor circulation and fatigue. Vegans have been found to have a lower average serum ferritin concentration, which indicates the amount of iron in the blood. However, vegans are no more likely than omnivores to suffer from anemia.
Given this information, not all vegans will find it necessary to take iron supplements. However, iron deficiency is a fairly common deficiency in the population as a whole, especially among females. If you are experiencing fatigue, increasing your iron intake may help. Vegan sources of iron include green leafy vegetables and whole grains, and iron supplements can be found in pill or liquid form.
Zinc is needed for proper functioning of the immune system, and vegans may be at an increased risk of zinc deficiency because of low consumption of the mineral. Also, vegans consume large amounts of grains, legumes and seeds. These foods contain high levels of phytates, which bind to zinc and lower its bioavailability. Vegans have been found to have immune functioning equal to that of omnivores despite lower zinc consumption, and no other effects of low zinc are known. However, you may wish to consume zinc-fortified foods or take zinc supplements to ensure that your zinc stays at a normal level.
Vitamin B12 performs several important roles in the body, including roles in bone health and neurological functioning. B12 deficiency can have major health effects such as psychiatric symptoms and macrocytic anemia, in which red blood cells are abnormally large. For omnivores, the main source of B12 is animal products. Since no plant-based foods contain significant amounts of B12, vegans are at a greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.
Because it is lacking in plant-based foods and because deficiency has such serious effects, vitamin B12 is the most important nutrient for vegans to supplement. You can obtain some B12 from fortified foods such as nutritional yeast or soy milk. However, the most effective and reliable way to take B12 is through supplements, which can be taken either daily or weekly depending on the dosage.
Choose your supplements.
As you can see, the nutritional characteristics of a vegan diet are complex and necessitate some extra planning. The supplements vegans should take can vary widely depending on demographics and health conditions. Another important factor to consider is how much effort you want to devote to planning a varied and nutritionally complete diet.
The good news is that you have several options. Certain nutrients are scarce in plant foods, but some extra effort in planning your diet can help you to consume enough of these nutrients. Fortified foods are another good option for obtaining nutrients that do not occur naturally in plant foods. Fortified foods such as soy milk and breakfast cereals are often fortified with multiple nutrients. They can help you to cover many of your daily nutritional needs with little effort.
Lastly, you can take nutritional supplements and rest easy knowing that you are getting all the important nutrients that are hard to find in plant-based foods. Supplements are the easiest and most reliable way to obtain nutrients that are naturally scarce in your diet. Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of the supplements vegans should take to function optimally in every way. Proper supplementation can help you to simplify your diet and enjoy better health. Being vegan does not have to be complicated, so choose your supplements today and start enjoying all the benefits that a plant-based diet can give you.
Winston J Craig; Health effects of vegan diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 5, 1 May 2009, Pages 1627S–1633S. doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N