A plant-based diet is a great way to make healthier choices – especially if you are eating lots of fruit and vegetables. However, cutting out meat and dairy products can leave you lacking in certain nutrients. So should vegans take supplements?
Meat is a rich source of protein, which gives us energy and keeps us full for longer. Protein is incredibly important, but vegans don’t always get the right amount through their diet, and can turn to the best vegan protein powder for additional support. Meat also contains nutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron that help our blood and nerve cells to function properly, and support our immune system. Meanwhile, dairy products contain vitamins A and D, and are a great source of calcium. These nutrients contribute to many functions, including reproductive and bone health.
If you’re eating a varied vegan diet with lots of pulses, vegetables and grains, you can get some of these nutrients. But to get the quantity of nutrients you need for optimal health, supplementing with the right vitamins is a sensible choice. We talk to nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini (opens in new tab) about exactly what supplements you should take on a vegan diet.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
If you’re on a plant-based diet, you may believe that vegans don’t need to take supplements, but nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini disagrees. “Anyone eating a purely plant-based diet should definitely be taking supplements,” she says. “I mainly see vegans with deficiencies in iron and B12, as they can’t get the right quantities through their food.”
Pellegrini also says that you may also need to supplement with vitamin A, protein, and calcium. “You can have a really healthy diet and feel incredible, but being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean healthy – so you will need some supplementary support.”
A study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic (opens in new tab) found that nutrients of concern for vegans are vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The authors went on to suggest that some vegans rely heavily on processed foods and may not eat the variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are needed to obtain these key nutrients.
Which supplements should vegans take and why?
If you’re not getting the right type of nutrients through your diet, then the benefits of supplements can be huge. Pellegrini recommends a multivitamin for everyone, as it’s an easy way to get lots of essential nutrients in one go.
Two of the most important vitamins that vegans should be getting are B12 and iron. Vitamin B12 helps to promote energy and reduce fatigue, while also keeping your body’s blood cells healthy. Pins and needles or restless legs can be a sign of B12 deficiency.
Pellegrini also stresses the importance of an iron supplement, especially for women who are menstruating, or for anyone who may need additional iron support. “If you’re eating meat, poultry or seafood, you’ll be getting the haem type of iron,” she explains. “Plant-based foods mostly contain what is called non-haem iron. Haem iron can be found in wholegrains, leafy veg, legumes and nuts - but you’re not going to get the same levels as you would from meat.”
Other important nutrients that vegans may be lacking are vitamin A, calcium and protein. Vitamin A is important for immunity and thyroid function. “It’s one of those nutrients that is often overlooked,” says Pellegrini. “It’s a fat-soluble vitamin so our body holds on to it, but it’s important for immunity and reproduction.”
Vitamin A is available in two forms – preformed vitamin A from animal sources, and provitamin A carotenoids from plant sources. The plant form is less bioavailable, which means it’s not as easily absorbed and used by the body. “So a good multivitamin containing your B12, vitamin A and iron could be a good way of getting the levels you need,” says Pellegrini.
While a calcium supplement may also be advisable for vegans, there are lots of people that meet their intake without eating dairy, says Pellegrini. This is because green leafy vegetables and sesame seeds are both excellent sources.
When it comes to protein, Pellegri explains that whilst there are lots of plant-based protein sources, it can be a struggle to eat the amount you need to reach your daily intake. “A chicken breast has 23g of protein,” she says. “But a vegetarian or vegan alternative is considerably less – over half. Most women need about 45g of protein a day and men need 55g a day, and that’s assuming you are not exercising a lot. If you’re vegan, to get that same quantity just means more food – so a good vegan protein powder added to a smoothie in the morning can help you up those energy levels.”
How else can vegans include nutrients in their diet?
If you want to get the majority of your nutrients through diet, it’s best to aim for as much variety as possible before you think about supplementing. Cooking from scratch, rather than opting for processed or packaged foods, is also advisable.
Vitamin B12 isn’t found in any fruits and is at its richest in meat and poultry. It can, however, be found in some shitake mushrooms, fortified cereals, plant-based milk and yeast spread. Iron can be found in leafy green vegetables and beans.
Vitamin A can be obtained by eating a variety of colorful fruit and vegetables, including peppers, butternut squash, kale and sweet potatoes. For vegans, a rich source of calcium is green leafy vegetables, along with tofu and pulses.
Protein can be found in some vegan-friendly foods such as tahini and lentils, but a good vegan protein shake is also a great option to get the right amount in your diet.