World Vegan Day (1st of November) is a celebration of compassion, sustainability, and a commitment to a plant-based lifestyle. Plant-based means vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, pulses, and foods made from plants. While a vegan diet offers numerous health benefits and supports animal welfare and the environment, it’s important to be aware of certain nutrients that can be lacking in a vegan lifestyle.
If you do not plan your diet properly, you face an increased risk of nutrient deficiencies.1https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/the-vegan-diet/ In this article, we’ll explore the key nutrients that vegans may need to pay extra attention to and the supplements that can help bridge the nutritional gaps.
1. Vitamin B12
Top of the list, and perhaps the most well-known nutrient of concern for vegans, is vitamin B12. This essential nutrient is vital for nerve function, the production of red blood cells, and protein metabolism. Since B12 is primarily found in animal products (fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products), vegans are at risk of deficiency. The primary and scientifically proven way for vegans to ensure they meet their vitamin B12 requirements is by consuming B12-fortified foods or taking a vitamin B12 supplement. B12-fortified foods commonly include plant-based milk, soy products, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast (e.g. Marmite).2https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#1.-Vitamin-B123https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/the-vegan-diet/ If you are considering a supplement, you can choose between cyanocobalamin4https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#1.-Vitamin-B12 and methylcobalamin5https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/ forms, both of which are effective.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be split into two categories – essential omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.6https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#3.-Long-chain-omega-3s Theoretically, your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, but unfortunately, many struggle to convert ALA into EPA and DHA effectively.7https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/ In fact, studies estimate that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, may be as low as 5–10% and 2–5%, respectively.8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/129369599https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19500961
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are important for numerous reasons such as contributing to heart health, brain health and development, structural role in eyes, and reducing the risk of inflammation, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and breast cancer.10https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#3.-Long-chain-omega-3s
Our bodies can’t make omega-3s so we must include them in our diets. Vegans can obtain ALA from plant-based sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soybeans, and walnuts. Since many people can’t effectively convert ALA into EPA and DHA, it’s best to include direct sources of these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. The best dietary sources of EPA and DHA are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and herring, and algae. This means if you are following a vegan diet, it is often recommended to take an algae-based omega-3 supplement.
Iron is a nutrient that your body uses to make new DNA and red blood cells, and to transport oxygen throughout your body.11https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#4.-Iron As iron is an essential mineral, it must be obtained from your diet. Iron can be found in two different forms in food (heme and non-heme). Heme iron is found in animal products and non-heme iron is found in some plant foods. Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme iron, so it can be challenging for vegans to get sufficient amounts.12https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#4.-Iron13https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/ Low levels of iron are associated with anaemia, fatigue, decreased immune function, and are of particular concern for menstruating females.
Vegans can boost their iron intake by consuming iron-rich foods like lentils, beans, spinach, cruciferous vegetables, peas, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, tofu, dark chocolate, whole grains, mushrooms, pumpkin, squash, and fortified cereals. Phytates (naturally occurring compounds found in many plant-based foods) can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.14https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/ However, pairing these iron-rich plant foods with vitamin C-rich options can enhance iron absorption. Tea and coffee may also interfere with the absorption of iron, so it’s best to avoid these drinks at meal times.
It’s worth emphasising that while it’s unlikely for vegans, excessive iron intake can be as harmful as insufficient iron levels. To check the need for supplements, ask your health practitioner to test your haemoglobin and ferritin levels. Iron can be supplemented as iron bisglycinate, which is well-absorbed and causes less GI distress than other types of iron.15https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/best-iron-supplement#A-quick-look-at-the-best-iron-supplements16https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/
The importance of calcium for strong, healthy bones has been ingrained in all of our minds from childhood (“them bones them bones need calcium”😉). Calcium is also crucial for muscle function, healthy teeth, nerve signalling, and heart health.17https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#5.-Calcium
Dairy products are the primary source of calcium for many people, but vegans can obtain calcium from fortified plant-based milk or juice, fortified cereals, bok choy, kale, watercress, broccoli, mustard greens, turnip greens, sesame seeds, tahini, pulses, almonds, chickpeas, and calcium-set tofu.
Research indicates that vegans who consume less than 525 mg of calcium may face an elevated risk of bone fractures.18https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17299475 If you are following a plant-based diet, and cannot consume at least this amount through food, you should consider a daily calcium supplement.19https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#5.-Calcium
Calcium can be taken as calcium citrate or calcium carbonate. Algae-sourced calcium is another effective plant-based option providing a natural form of calcium. Our top recommendation would be to make an effort to obtain your required calcium from the foods listed above instead of opting for a supplement! Getting enough calcium on a vegan diet is achievable with some planning!
Zinc is a mineral that’s crucial for immune function, wound healing, skin health, and metabolism. Insufficient intake of zinc is associated with hair loss, delayed wound healing, developmental issues, and diarrhoea.20https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans#6.-Zinc The richest sources of zinc are animal foods such as beef, poultry, lamb, and seafood. Vegan sources of zinc include lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, and sprouted bread.
Unfortunately, phytates which are found in plant-based foods can inhibit zinc absorption.21https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/ As a result, those following a vegan diet are more likely to have lower zinc levels. Enhancing absorption may be possible by soaking nuts, seeds, and legumes overnight, ensuring an adequate protein intake, and incorporating fermented foods like tempeh and miso into your diet.
For vegans who struggle to meet the recommended zinc intake, it’s essential to focus on incorporating zinc-rich foods into their diets. Individuals with insufficient zinc levels in their blood should consider a daily supplement. Zinc is most effectively supplemented in the form of citrate or picolinate.22https://www.nutriadvanced.ie/news/top-6-essential-nutrients-for-supporting-a-vegan-lifestyle/
Are you eating enough sources of these five nutrients? While these are our top five, it’s important to remember, if you do not plan your diet properly, you could miss out on other essential nutrients too, such as iodine, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and adequate protein. Find out here why everyone is recommended to supplement with vitamin D. If you are struggling to meet your nutritional needs solely through diet, you should consider incorporating supplements into your routine. You should always consult with a healthcare professional before initiating any new supplement regimen.
For some delicious, vegan goodness, try our Gut Health Super Salad with tofu or tempeh!
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