Do vegetarians and vegans need vitamin supplements?
The NHS states with good preparation and knowledge of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegetarian and vegan diet, you are able to get all the nutrients your body needs to be healthy without the need for supplements.
However, if your diet isn't planned properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients.
The NHS suggests that vegetarians need to make sure they get enough iron and vitamin B12, and vegans enough calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Women are thought to be at particular risk of iron deficiency, including those on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some groups are advised to take vitamin supplements, regardless of whether they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Here is a list of 8 supplements that you may consider taking if you follow a whole plant based, vegan or vegetarian diet.
Vitamin B-12 is probably the most important supplement for vegans. It is vital for maintaining many bodily processes.
This vitamin plays a role in the development of red blood cells, helps metabolize proteins, and supports a healthy nervous system.
Even though anyone can have low vitamin B-12 levels, vegans usually 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 meat eaters 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.
Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Yeast extract, such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12
- Breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12
- Soya products fortified with vitamin B12
Adults need about 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day. Check the labels of fortified foods to see how much vitamin B12 they contain.
It is also wise for vegans to check in with their doctor from time to time to test their vitamin B-12 and iron levels.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a good source of healthful fats. Generally a plant-based vegan diet is high in some types of omega-3 fatty acids, but it is low in others.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for vegetarians and vegans include:
- Flaxseed oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Soya oil and soya-based foods (such as tofu)
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.
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. Although, it has been reported that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet high in iron-rich foods can provide the body with adequate iron.
Iron-rich foods include:
- Legumes ( Peas, Pulses )
- Whole grains
- Dried fruits
- Dark, leafy vegetables
- Some fortified cereals and foods
Warning . 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.
However, 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 are high in calcium.
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.
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.
Between late March/early April and September, the majority of people aged 5 years and above will probably obtain sufficient vitamin D from sunlight when they are outdoors, alongside foods that naturally contain or are fortified with vitamin D. As such, they might choose not to take a vitamin D supplement during these months.
From October to March everyone over the age of five will need to rely on dietary sources of vitamin D. Since vitamin D is found only in a small number of foods, it might be difficult to get enough from foods that naturally contain vitamin D and/or fortified foods alone. So everyone should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 µg of vitamin D.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, contain vitamin K-2.
Vitamin K helps with blood clotting and wound healing. There are two types of vitamin K: vitamin K-1 and 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 are 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.
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.
Iodine is required 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.Apparently 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.
With good planning we should be able to get all the vitamins and nutrients needed from our food. However, at times that is not always