Supplements for vegans: What to know
A vegan diet is low in some nutrients, such as vitamin B-12, that are primarily present in animal products. Vegan supplements offer a simple way for people to get enough of these nutrients.
In this article, learn about the most common vegan supplements and why they are beneficial.
1. Vitamin B-12
Most vegans can benefit from taking a B-12 supplement.
Vitamin B-12 may be the most important supplement for vegans. It is crucial for maintaining many bodily processes.
This vitamin plays a role in the formation of red blood cells, helps metabolize proteins, and even supports a healthy nervous system.
Although anyone can have low vitamin B-12 levels, vegans typically have a higher risk of deficiency as there are limited vegan sources of this vitamin.
It is important to note that people absorb and use vitamin B-12 differently. Even people who eat meat can have a vitamin B-12 deficiency if their body is unable to absorb the vitamin properly. The body's ability to use vitamin B-12 also declines with age.
It is important for vegans to check in with their doctor from time to time to test their vitamin B-12 and iron levels. Working directly with a nutritionist or doctor can help them create a balanced diet plan.
The authors of a 2014 study recommend eating nori, a type of seaweed, regularly. It contains high levels of vitamin B-12 and other important nutrients for vegans, such as iron and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Another simple way to add vitamin B-12 to a vegan diet is to eat nutritional yeast, which has a nutty, cheesy flavor. Manufacturers often fortify this inactive yeast with the vitamins that a vegan diet may be lacking.
Manufacturers may fortify other foods with B-12 as well, such as tofu or other soy products, some breakfast cereals, and soy, rice, or nut milk. As the plant-based movement continues to grow, more sources of vitamin B-12 may become available.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a great source of healthful fats. A plant-based vegan diet is generally high in some types of omega-3 fatty acids, but it is low in others.
Omega-3 fatty acids offer several health benefits, including:
- aiding neurodevelopment in infants and children
- preventing Alzheimer's disease and dementia
- lowering the risk of heart disease
- reducing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis
Although more research in these areas is necessary, omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in the development or treatment of other conditions, including:
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- childhood allergies
- cystic fibrosis
Essential omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), must come from the diet. The body cannot make them itself.
Long chain omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are nonessential, meaning that the body can make them using ALA.
While ALA is present in flaxseed, canola oil, and soy products, EPA and DHA are only present in fish, fish oils, and microalgae.
Algae oil supplements and concentrates are the best vegan sources of EPA and DHA.
Broccoli and seeds are rich in iron.
Iron is crucial for building healthy blood cells and helping them carry oxygen throughout the body. It has two different forms: heme and nonheme. Heme iron comes from animals, while nonheme iron comes from plants.
Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb and use. With that said, the authors of a 2013 study noted that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet high in iron-rich foods can provide the body with adequate iron.
Vegan iron-rich foods include:
- whole grains
- dried fruits
- dark, leafy vegetables
- some fortified cereals and foods
Additionally, getting plenty of vitamin C increases the intake of iron. People can request a blood test to see if they are getting and storing enough iron. Eating enough of these foods may mean that there is no need for supplementation.
In cases where a person has very low iron stores, doctors may still recommend iron supplements.
Getting too much iron can be dangerous, so it may be best to speak with a doctor before supplementing it.
Calcium is another vital nutrient that some vegans may be lacking. It plays an important role in bone and teeth formation, muscle function, and heart health.
According to research from 2014, calcium levels are lowest in vegans, compared with omnivores and vegetarians.
The following plant sources are rich in calcium:
- dark, leafy greens, such as mustard greens, bok choy, and watercress
- legumes, such as chickpeas
- fortified foods, which include many types of plant-based milk
If a person is not getting enough calcium from these foods, they should consider supplementation. Calcium typically comes in both capsule and powder form. Taking vitamin D alongside calcium may help boost its absorption.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps regulate mood and improve immune system function, and it aids the body's absorption of other nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous.
The body can make vitamin D when it gets enough sunlight. Most people can make an ample amount of vitamin D each day by spending about 15 to 20 minutes in the afternoon sun.
However, this is not always possible. Wearing sunscreen, which is vital for skin cancer prevention, may reduce the production of vitamin D. Many people live in areas with cold, cloudy weather and cover up their skin most of the time.
Few foods contain vitamin D. Many dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, may contain added vitamin D, but these foods are not suitable for vegans.
Vegan sources of vitamin D include fortified cereals and some types of mushroom. The average vitamin D intake from food alone tends to be lower than the recommended daily intake, so both omnivores and vegans can often benefit from taking a supplement.
6. Vitamin K-2
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, contain vitamin K-2.
Vitamin K-1 occurs naturally in many plants, especially dark, leafy greens.
Vitamin K-2 is present in some dairy products and egg yolks. As vegans do not eat dairy or eggs, they should focus on consuming the other source of vitamin K-2, which is fermented foods.
Examples of vegan fermented foods that may contain vitamin K-2 include:
- raw sauerkraut
- natto, a fermented soybean dish
- unpasteurized kombucha
- vegan kimchi
- plant-based kefir
It is unlikely that a vegan will be deficient in vitamin K, given that gut bacteria can turn vitamin K-1 into vitamin K-2.
However, some people may wish to supplement their diet with K-2. Taking a vegan probiotic supplement may also help the gut process vitamin K.
Zinc is another important compound for metabolism and the immune system. There are a few plant-based sources of zinc. However, plant compounds called phytates, which occur in many legumes and cereals, impair the absorption of zinc.
While not all vegans have low zinc intake, a 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis noted that vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower overall zinc levels.
Iodine is necessary for a healthy thyroid gland. It is present in small amounts in plants depending on the soil in which they grew. Seaweed also contains iodine.
Vegans who eat edible seaweed a few times a week, such as in sushi, should meet their necessary iodine intake.
Iodized salt is also common in many regions, so people can get enough iodine from the salt present in home-cooked meals.
People who are concerned about their iodine intake should speak to a doctor about taking a supplement.
Vegan diets can offer many health benefits, but they can also make it difficult for people to get enough of certain nutrients.
Making up for these nutrients by eating specific foods and taking supplements can help vegans stay healthy.
The vegan supplements listed in this article are available for purchase online.
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