There’s quite a major concern amongst vegans and non-vegans alike about the use of supplements in their everyday diet. If veganism is such a healthy choice for your eating lifestyle, then why do you need to bother with taking daily supplements? You should be able to get every nutrient you need by your plant-based, all-natural diet, right?
These questions pop up quite frequently as vegans discuss why they choose to be vegan. It also serves as an influence in skeptic’s minds about whether this type of diet is healthy. Due to the misconception about the vegan diet being completely healthy on its own, a lot of vegans themselves do not take supplements, which is causing an increased number of health issues.
The decision to go vegan is often a personal one, whether due to beliefs in animal rights or the idea that meats contribute to more health issues. Maybe it’s a complete distaste for meaty foods. Either way, humans were designed to eat meat and animal products as a means of finding sources of nutrients you won’t find in the plant kingdom.
When you remove those sources of food, we’re left with a massive gap that needs to be filled if we want to live a truly healthy life. Some vegetarian foods, like nuts, seeds, soy, and legumes do have properties like meats, such as protein, but there are still a lot of nutrients missing from a vegan’s diet that must be addressed. Because of this, numerous vegans and vegetarians have developed major health concerns as they relate to deficiencies in vitamin B12, iodine, iron, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Let’s look at each of these vitamins and minerals and discuss why you need each one.
#1: Vitamin B12
As any vegan knows, Vitamin B12 is the Holy Grail of important nutrients and is non-negotiable if you choose a vegan lifestyle. B12 is responsible for a lot of necessary bodily functions involving protein metabolism itself and the creation of red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body. It’s also crucial for proper function of the nervous system.
A lot of vegans believe they can find necessary quantities of vitamin B12 in foods like mushrooms, non-dairy milk, yeast, and spirulina, but it’s hardly enough to cover your daily needs. Because of this, a lot of vegans get sick, thinking they are eating enough to supplant the offset. Our bodies don’t create B12 naturally on its own, so it requires the eating of dairy, eggs, and meat to get enough of it to keep us healthy which is not practical with a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 itself is made naturally by bacteria living in soil, which ends up in the stomachs of animals that eat from the ground, like sheep, cows, pigs, etc. They take in a large amount of B12 due to their food also being contaminated with the soil in which it’s produced. The B12 is then absorbed from the animal’s stomach into their tissues and muscles.
It is thought that humans throughout history not only got enough vitamin B12 from animal products, but also from the soil as they ate fruits and vegetables. Today, we sterilize the soil before growing to make the process as sanitary as possible. Because of this, vegans will need to find B12 in supplement form or in B12-fortified foods, like breakfast cereal and granola, if they hope to remain as healthy as possible.
The good news is, we don’t need a whole lot of vitamin B12 to hit what our bodies need. The question is whether you will be able to find adequate sources in a plant-based diet and the answer is often no. The daily recommendation for B12 is 2.4 mcg if you’re an adult. Up it to 2.6 if you’re pregnant and 2.8 if breastfeeding.
If you desire to have a strong, healthy metabolism, then iodine is a must-have. Iodine mostly impacts the thyroid, which, in turn, impacts so many other functions within the human body. Those who have low-levels of iodine won’t just have a sluggish metabolism, but it can also lead to a drop-in energy levels, forgetfulness, weight gain, dry skin, and depression.
Even worse, if you fail to get enough iodine in your system while pregnant, it can lead to some major mental retardation for the baby. So, it’s CRUCIAL for vegans who are thinking about having a baby to take supplements to ensure they’re getting enough. Even if you’re not pregnant, a deficiency can cause hypothyroidism, along with the other issues listed above.
Vegans are especially at risk of developing an iodine deficiency, having even 50% lower blood iodine levels than vegetarians due to the differences in diet preferences. Iodine is found mostly in dairy products and seafood, but can also be found in seaweed and iodized salt. You can even find it in some plant foods depending on their distance from the ocean. For example, plants closer to the ocean have higher levels of iodine
If you do not ingest iodized salt or seaweed several times per week, then it’s imperative to take supplements to keep your thyroid and metabolism roaring at healthy levels. Its recommended adults take 150 mcg of iodine each day. It jumps to 220 mcg per day if you’re pregnant and 290 if breastfeeding.
Iron is another necessary nutrient that impacts the health of our blood cells, including the carrying of oxygen through the body and creation of new DNA cells. Proper oxygen levels are crucial for the brain, the heart, your muscles, and even your energy levels (metabolism). Not eating enough iron can also cause anemia, lower immune levels, and fatigue.
The thing about iron is, you can find it in both plant and animal food sources. Heme iron is found only in animal products, where non-heme can be found in plants. The issue for vegans is, heme iron is much easier for our bodies to absorb, so meat-eaters have the advantage when trying to keep up with healthy levels of iron in the body. You can find non-heme iron in a lot of the higher-protein plant-based foods, like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, dried fruit, and cruciferous veggies.
Vegans can try eating higher quantities of the foods listed above to see if that will be adequate., but the only way to be sure is to visit your doctor for a blood test to check your ferritin and hemoglobin levels for iron. Taking in too much iron can also cause unnecessary complications as well, so do not take supplements until you check with your doctor first and your tests reveal lower-than-normal levels.
Adult men should take 8 mg of iron per day. The number jumps to 18 mg if you’re a woman and 27 mg if you’re pregnant. Post-menopausal woman can take the same amount as men.
#4: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a tricky nutrient. Vitamin D isn’t found in natural foods, minus a few animal products, like milk. Our bodies were meant to absorb what we need directly from the sun. Just 15 minutes per day of standing out in the sun produces enough vitamin D to sustain us. The problem is, our modern-day lifestyle makes getting it that much tougher.
More and more vegans and omnivores alike are found to have vitamin D deficiencies, both because of the lack of natural food sources and the fact that we spend more time inside than any other time in human history. Also, the time we do spend outdoors is often accompanied with ample amounts of sunblock or heavy clothing, which can hinder the absorption of vitamin D. If this describes you, you have darker skin, or you live in a northern climate, odds are you are deficient.
Vitamin D is needed to help your gut take in calcium and phosphorus, which directly impacts so many bodily functions, like memory, muscle recovery, the immune system, and even your mood. Because of the lack of exposure to the sun and vitamin D found in natural foods, it’s best to check with your doctor to get a blood test.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 600 IU (or 15 mcg) each day. Lactating and pregnant women, as well as the elderly, should try for 800 IU (or 20 mcg) daily. There is some evidence that even these daily recommended numbers are low, so again, it’s important to check with your doctor.
#5: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are essentially 3 types of fatty acids which can be broken down into two categories. You have ALA, EPA, and DHA fatty acids. ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means you can get it from your diet. EPA and DHA aren’t necessarily as essential as ALA because they can be derived from ALA in the body.
EPA and DHA are incredibly important when it comes to your brain development and health, depression, eye structure, breast cancer, ADHD, and inflammation. While you your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, and ALA you can get from seeds and nuts, especially walnuts, hemp seeds, and flax seeds, additional research is showing a discrepancy in ALA levels.
In vegans and vegetarians specifically, studies reveal they have as much as 50% lower tissue and blood concentrations of EPA and DHA than those who eat animal products. This might be because animal products make it easier to absorb these fatty acids. There’s another nutrient you only get with meat and dairy that you don’t get with a plant-based diet. Therefore, adding an omega-3 DHA and EPA supplement to you vegan diet is a must to your overall health.
Despite no current recommended daily allowance of omega-3 fatty acids, most doctors and professionals would say that between 200 and 300 mg in supplement form is enough to get the job done.
If you’ve chosen the vegan lifestyle or even if you just don’t like the taste of meat, you must recognize that we are considered omnivores for a reason. It’s commendable if you choose not to eat meat or consume dairy products for political reasons, but you must remember to replace the nutrients lost that you will only find in that type of food.
Keeping a food journal and planning your meals in advance can help determine which vitamins and nutrients you may need to supplement. Be sure to check with your doctor and have all your levels tested to get a better sense of which supplements you may need to incorporate into your daily routine to stay as healthy as humanly possible.
About the Author
Hi, I'm Lauren Saleh, a working super mom of 3 crazy busy kids who is living and loving every single moment of this adventure called life.