A common concern that ‘newbie’ vegans and vegetarians have is whether or not their diets can provide their bodies with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. A whole food, plant-centered diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and many other ailments1.
Most people believe that eating a healthy plant-based diet is enough. But the reality is that our topsoil has been depleted and lost much of its mineral content. The food our ancestors ate had enough bacteria on the surface to provide their bodies with the nutrients they needed. Today, we typically clean and cook our foods, thereby reducing vitamin and mineral content.
5 Key Supplements for Vegans And Vegetarians
1. Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for our health, but it is found naturally in dirt and animal products. Animals don’t make B12 naturally. They get it from the grass that grows in the dirt they eat. Soil bacteria in the gut of the animals produce vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 prevents nerve damage, protects the heart, supports energy levels, and the immune system. You can also develop anemia and neurological issues if you are deficient in vitamin B12 for a prolonged period of time. In one study, vitamin B12 deficiency affected 86 percent of all vegans2.
Some non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast products are fortified with vitamin B12, but these products typically contain low doses of this vitamin.
2. Vitamin D: An estimated 40% to 60% of the world’s adult population has a vitamin D deficiency. Our ancestors didn’t have this problem because they lived outdoors and didn’t wear much clothing. This allowed them to get enough vitamin D from the sun to survive. Today, most of us work inside and wear clothes.
A study published in the Journal of Neurology showed that people with moderate vitamin D deficiency had a 53% greater risk of dementia and a 70% higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease3. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and other minerals (including phosphorous). It is also crucial for the healthy functioning of your muscles, your heart, your brain, your pancreas, and your thyroid. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed how people who had optimal vitamin D levels during the winter had lower rates of flu than people who received flu vaccines4.
The flesh of certain fatty fish and some fish liver oils contain only small amounts of vitamin D. Fortified milk products provide the most vitamin D in the American diet today. Some mushrooms have their vitamin D content boosted with ultraviolet light. But it’s difficult to know if you’re consuming enough vitamin D.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are critical to human health. DHA, in particular, is a primary structural fat in the human brain and eyes5.
Research has shown that vegetarians and vegans have up to 50% lower blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA than omnivores6.
Plant foods that are highest in ALA are flax seeds, chia seeds, canola oil, camelina oil, walnuts, and hemp seeds. EPA and DHA are primarily found in Alaskan Pollock, salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, and other fatty fish – as well as in specific forms of algae.
4. Iron: Iron is a nutrient that your body uses to make new DNA and red blood cells. It also carries oxygen in your blood7. Having an iron deficiency can lead to anemia, fatigue, and decreased immune function.
Vegans with a low iron intake should aim to eat more iron-rich foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.
5. Calcium: Calcium is a mineral necessary for your bones and teeth. It also plays a big role in muscle function, nerve signaling, and heart health.
Plant sources of calcium include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, and fortified plant milk or juice.
Research shows that vegans consuming less than 525 mg of calcium tend to have an increased risk of bone fractures.
1. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets, 2013 Spring; 17(2): 61–66
2. The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature, 06 July 2016
3. Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease, September 02, 2014
4. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data, 15 February 2017
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy, 2008
6. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets, 2013 Aug 19;199(4 Suppl):S22-6
7. Review on iron and its importance for human health, 2014 Feb; 19(2): 164–174
8. Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford, 2007 Dec;61(12):1400-6. Epub 2007 Feb 7