- Plant-based diets are largely very healthy—but can lack key nutrients that are abundant in meat and animal products.
- Certain supplements are good for vegans to consider taking, especially if they’re experiencing deficiency symptoms.
- Always talk to a doctor or a nutritionist before taking supplements.
Your mom was totally right about broccoli: Eating veggies is key to being healthy. But nixing all meat from your meals? Uh, that makes things a bit more complicated.
“On a vegan diet, there are certain nutrients that you either can’t get enough of or need to make an effort,” says Sharon Bergquist, M.D., a primary care internist with Emory University.
So yes, that means paying extra-careful attention to what you eat—or taking a supplement to fill in the gaps. But here’s the thing: Your supplement needs can vary a lot depending on what you’re eating (you may not need any!) and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Always talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian before popping any pills.
Also, fair warning: Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—and some research has found that many don’t even contain the amounts of vitamins and minerals claimed on the label.
To play it safe, check bottles for seals from independent testing groups like the Consumer Lab or US Pharmacopeia (USP). Bergquist also recommends sticking with big-name brands to be on the safe side.
In the meantime, here are seven vitamins and minerals you’ll need to pay particular attention to if you’re vegan:
What it does: Vitamin B12 supports the nervous system and helps your body create red blood cells. Not getting enough can put you at risk for a specific type of anemia that can eventually lead to nervous system damage. Signs of deficiency can include fatigue, tingling, speech or memory impairment, and difficulty with balance.
Why vegans need it: Bergquist and Vandana Sheth, R.D., a vegetarian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agree that many vegans don’t get enough vitamin B12. Why? The main source of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 2.4 mcg are animal products like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. (All persona non-grata on a vegan diet).
How to get it: Your doctor can measure your B12 levels with a blood test, which Sheth recommends doing once a year. Fortified veggie foods including breakfast cereals, dairy alternatives, and nutritional yeast serve up some B12, but most vegans need to take a supplement with 5 to 10 mcg daily.
What it does: Your body needs iron to carry oxygen throughout your body in the hemoglobin of your red blood cells—and when you’re not getting enough, you’ll feel super tired (and possibly anemic).
Why vegans need it: Animal protein—especially red meat—is the best source, but it is possible to get iron from plant-based foods including spinach, dried fruits, prune juice, wheat bran, whole-wheat bread, white beans, kidney beans, and tofu. However, the iron in fortified and veggie foods can sometimes be harder for the body to absorb than the iron in meat.
How to get it: You can get around this by pairing your plant-based iron foods with a vitamin C-rich food to boost absorption—like dowsing red sauce on pasta or having an orange with your PB&J. Cooking in a cast-iron pan also helps put more iron into your food, notes Ana Maria Lopez, M.D., president of the American College of Physicians (ACP).
“You should only supplement iron if you have a deficiency, and most people who are vegan use a lot of beans and lentils and should be okay without a safety net,” says Bergquist. And it’s possible to eat too much, adds Lopez, making it hard for your body to absorb calcium and causing side effects like like abdominal pain, constipation, nausea, and vomiting.
So if you’re concerned about your iron levels, your doctor can test your blood for anemia and iron stores and let you know if you should supplement.
What it does: You might have heard about popping zinc when you feel like you’re getting sick—and that’s because getting enough is essential in boosting your immune system in addition to helping your body heal wounds, make DNA, and divide cells.
Why vegans need it: Red meat, poultry, dairy, and seafood—especially shellfish like oysters—are where most Americans get their daily dose of zinc, though you can get it in vegan sources like whole-grain fortified bread and cereal, legumes (like chickpeas and green peas), and nuts (like cashews).
How to get it: “Most vegans should be able to get enough through their diet,” says Bergquist. She and Sheth say vegans usually need 50 percent more zinc than the average person’s RDA of 15 mg per day because phytates in whole grains and legumes reduce zinc’s absorption.
If you’re suffering from symptoms of deficiency (no appetite, getting sick often, losing weight, slow-healing wounds, and mental fatigue)—talk to your doctor or nutritionist. He or she may recommend taking a supplement at 150 percent of your RDA in the form of zinc citrate or zinc gluconate to see if symptoms improve, says Sheth.
What it does: Vitamin D helps with absorption of calcium to keep your bones healthy, and some studies have linked it to mood and immune function, notes Lopez. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are among the best sources of D along with fortified milk, yogurt, and eggs; plant-based sources include mushrooms and fortified OJ.
Why vegans need it: “Most people have trouble getting enough vitamin D whether they’re vegan or not,” says Lopez. But how much D doctors think the average person needs, however, is changing. “We’re learning and trying to get a better handle on it,” she adds.
How to get it: The National Institutes of Health sets the minimum at 400 IU per day, but many doctors recommend two to three times more than that to reap its potential health benefits. Both Lopez and Bergquist recommend most adults (vegans or not) take a supplement of 500 to 600 IU per day.
What it does: Omega-3 fatty acids may help keep inflammation in check—and inflammation plays a role in lots of chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), and cancer.
Why vegans need it: Because fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are the best sources for omega-3s, “I think this is one where people can be at risk if of a deficiency if they’re vegan,” says Lopez.
How to get it: For now, there isn’t an official recommendation for a minimum amount of omega-3s. Lopez recommends 200 to 300 mg daily (she notes that most supplements say they have 1,200 mg of omega-3s but actually contain 200 mg of actual fatty acid when you check the label). Just make sure the supplement you buy is vegan-friendly—a.k.a. not made with fish oil.
Why vegans need it: Most of us get plenty of iodine from iodized salt; you need just half a teaspoon a day to get your 150 mcg RDA of iodine, says Lopez. But if you’re vegan and cook with Himalayan or sea salt, there’s a chance you may not be getting enough, since other main sources include yogurt and fish. Iodine deficiency messes with your thyroid function and can lead to hypothyroidism.
How to get it: Seaweed is another great source; having a serving of the green stuff a few times a week could be enough, says Lopez—but talk to your doctor if you’re concerned you’re not getting enough.
What it does: While you might think of calcium as your bones’ best friend, your recommended 1000 mg total a day is also essential for your muscles, nerves, and heart.
Why vegans need it: While dairy products are notoriously great sources of calcium, plenty of plant-based foods including kale, broccoli, spinach, tofu, almonds, beans, sesame and soy milk serve up natural or fortified calcium. Still, it may be hard to get enough if you’re vegan, say Berquist and Lopez.
How to get it: Be sure to talk to your doctor before swallowing a pill. “Too much can lead to calcium deposition in your blood vessels, and there is concern in patients at risk for heart disease,” says Lopez. If you do wind up needing to take a supplement, Berquist says 500 to 600 mg daily is usually a good safety net.