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Vegan Supplements: 6 Critical Nutrients Most Vegan Diets Lack

Evidence-based Reviewed Article

The market for vegan supplements is currently huge, and its popularity is still on the rise. Yet despite the many health and environmental benefits of a vegan diet, there is concern among many nutritionists that a vegan diet cannot provide all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that the body needs. Do vegans really need these supplements for optimal health? And what are the best vegan supplements?

What Vitamins Are Vegans Lacking?

An image of vegan supplements with vegetablesMany health practitioners agree that a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can benefit the body and even help manage certain health conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. There has also been extensive research into the benefits of a vegan diet, and vegans typically have lower cholesterol levels and better blood sugar levels.1,2,3

However, a vegan diet often cannot provide all the vitamins and minerals the body needs.4 This is because some vitamins are only present in trace amounts in most plants, while others cannot be properly absorbed from plants. The vitamins most often lacking in a vegan diet include:

Are Vegan Supplements Necessary?

Considering that one of the major selling points of veganism is that it protects the body from the toxins present in the regular Western diet, many vegans oppose the idea of vegan supplements.

However, a vegan diet is notably deficient in vitamin B12. This is one of the most important vitamins in the body and is responsible for maintaining heart health, the nervous system, and brain function. Vitamin B12 is, therefore, necessary for survival. However, a vegan diet is also lacking in plenty of other essential nutrients.

Depending on the exact foods you eat, the actual amount of these nutrients and vitamins in your body may vary. Nonetheless, if these nutrients are consistently deficient, health conditions will arise. If this persists, the risk for severe illness significantly increases.

For individuals who already experience high amounts of stress, a lack of these essential nutrients can cause conditions like Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) to develop. Adrenal fatigue is a non-Addison's type of adrenal dysfunction in which the body’s stress response cannot keep up with life’s chronic stressors. While a regular Western diet will not guarantee the prevention of adrenal fatigue, as it can even worsen it, a vegan diet without vegan supplements could also worsen AFS.

Indeed, maintaining adequate levels of these nutrients in the body is critical for avoiding many health conditions.

Best Vegan Supplements

Different vitamins and minerals are missing in a vegan diet. However, below are the best vegan supplements necessary for good health. Note that supplement use should not replace medical attention and care. Ensure you speak to your medical practitioner before incorporating any supplement into your diet.

Vitamin B12

This is the most significant vitamin missing in a vegan diet, as it is responsible for several essential bodily functions. Vitamin B12 is essential in the production of DNA, the body’s genetic material, and it helps maintain the nervous system and the brain. The vitamin also prevents anemia, infertility, and heart conditions. Therefore, a deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to several health conditions.

Although some vegans state that eating the right plants can provide the body with adequate vitamin B12, there is no study to back up that claim. On the contrary, studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies.

An image of vegan supplements with fresh produceAnother claim by some vegans is that eating dirty vegetables will provide the needed vitamin B12 amount. The reasoning behind this claim is that soil bacteria produce vitamin B12, and not washing off the soil on the plants will satisfy the body’s vitamin B12 needs. That claim, also, is erroneous. Not only will doing that risk the ingestion of harmful substances, but there is no proof that modern farming practices will not have already destroyed the soil bacteria.

The safest and most advisable way to meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of 2.4 mcg for vitamin B12 is by taking vitamin B12 supplements or eating fortified foods. While supplementation is straightforward, fortified foods are not as direct. Although some plants seem to contain more than the 25 mcg of vitamin B12 the body needs, there is no conclusive evidence that the vitamin form is active. Only fortified, lab-cultured vitamin B12 can ensure enough active vitamin B12 intake in these foods. Nutritional yeast is one of these foods that can be fortified to have vitamin B12 and folate. Dr. Lam's Liponano MTHFR is a supplement that contains methylated B12 and methylfolate, to ensure that those who have a MTHFR genetic deficiency can get in the best form of Vitamin B12.

Calcium

As the main component of bone and teeth, calcium is an essential mineral. This mineral also helps in maintaining muscle, heart, and nerve functions. Since calcium is primarily from dairy products, vegan diets usually lack calcium. Although some claim the need for calcium in vegetarians is lower than among non-vegetarians, there is little research to back this up.

Most vegan diets seek to incorporate calcium-fortified plant milk since cow milk is one of the primary sources of calcium in regular non-vegan diets. However, to meet the RDI of 1000 mg (1200 mg for adults above 50), vegans may need calcium supplements.

Zinc

Zinc is essential for many bodily functions, like immunity, metabolism, cell growth, tasting and smelling, blood clotting, and wound healing. The main source of zinc is meat, even though beans, seeds, and nuts are excellent plant alternatives. Generally, though, the plant options for zinc are limited, and absorption from the plants that do contain zinc is not straightforward.

Therefore, vegans may need to add zinc supplements to their diet to meet the RDI of 8-11 mg of zinc. These supplements should not replace eating foods rich in zinc, however.

Iodine

The key player in maintaining proper thyroid gland function is iodine. Meeting the RDI of 150 mcg for vegans can be difficult, as iodine is mainly obtained from sea life and dairy products. Although sea vegetables and iodized salt are rich in iodine and can be included in a vegan diet, most vegans rarely eat them in high enough amounts to meet their daily iodine needs. And having too much salt can lead to heart conditions and worsen adrenal fatigue

Therefore, iodine-containing supplements can be a safer way to provide the iodine content the body needs.

Vitamin D3

This vitamin influences immune function, muscle health, and mood. If there is a deficiency of vitamin D3, the body is more susceptible to dangerous infections, which can cause severe health conditions. The RDI of vitamin D is 15 mcg, and while the body can actually produce it through sunlight, most people rely on their diet to meet their vitamin D needs.

However, vitamin D is mainly found in animal products like salmon and fortified dairy, putting vegans at a natural disadvantage. With vitamin D supplements, though, vegans can meet their RDI needs. Dr. Lam's D3K2 is a supplement that contains 5000 IU of Vitamin D3 along with Vitamin K2, which is important to help absorption of the Vitamin D to the right areas in the body. c

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are two groups of omega-3 fatty acids, namely essential and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Essential omega-3s can only be from diet, but the body can make long-chain omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA – and docosahexaenoic acid – DHA) from essential omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid – ALA).

ALA is present in high amounts in seeds and nuts. On the other hand, omega-3s DHA and EPA are mainly from animal products, meaning vegans are at risk of omega-3 deficiency. In theory, getting enough ALA should be able to meet the daily needs of DHA and EPA, but only 2-10% of ALA converts to DHA and EPA. Therefore, vegans need omega-3 fatty acids supplements.

Can Multivitamins Replace Individual Vegan Supplements?

An image of assorted vitamins and supplements spilling from a bottleMultivitamin products are designed to contain multiple vitamins, and they may seem the best option when taking a supplement. However, when talking about vitamins, more is not always better.

More important than the amount of vitamins present in any multivitamin supplement product is the actual formula of the product. This principle also applies to vegan supplements, as the right vitamins must be present in the right amounts.

Unfortunately, many vegan multivitamins on market shelves today do not provide all the essential vitamins vegans need and can promote a false sense of confidence in their nutrition. Therefore, it is critical to take care and ensure that multivitamin products contain the right vitamins in the right amounts. Below is one multivitamin supplement that is great for vegans.

Adrenal Daily Nutrient

This supplement is specifically formulated for vegans and contains vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, and zinc, which are among the main vitamins lacking in a vegan diet. Furthermore, these vitamins are present in sufficiently high enough levels to meet the recommended daily intake amounts for each of the vitamins. Moreover, the supplement contains no fat, cholesterol, gluten, wheat, or eggs. There is also a blend of probiotics to aid gut health and fruits to boost immune and adrenal function.

Are Vegan Supplements for Protein Important?

Protein is a crucial part of a balanced diet, and it aids several bodily functions, like immune function, fat metabolism, blood sugar control, and cell growth. Although plants can also be good protein sources, the best sources are animal products. Since vegans maintain a plant-based diet, a vegan diet tends to lack protein.5

To meet daily protein needs of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, vegans can increase their intake of high-protein foods, like quinoa, pulses, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Protein supplements can be used to complement these high-protein foods, especially among athletes.

Conclusion

Essential nutrients, like vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine, are usually lacking in vegan diets. Vegan supplements can help bridge these gaps and maintain good health. However, the decision to include supplements should only be made after consultation with a healthcare professional. While vegan multivitamins can help, carefully examining the components and their proportions is critical.

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References

Wang, F., et al. "Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials." Journal of the American Heart Association, vol. 4, no. 10, 2015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26508743/

Mishra, S. et al. A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: The GEICO study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23695207/

Lee, Y-M. et al. Effects of a Brown Rice Based Vegan Diet and Conventional Diabetic Diet on Glycemic Control of Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A 12-Week Randomized Clinical Trial. PLoS ONE, 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27253526/

Bakaloudi DR, Halloran A, Rippin HL, Oikonomidou AC, Dardavesis TI, Williams J, Wickramasinghe K, Breda J, Chourdakis M. Intake and adequacy of the vegan diet. A systematic review of the evidence. Clin Nutr. 2021 May;40(5):3503-3521. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33341313/

Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Sep 13;14:36. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28924423/

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

A vegan diet can be deficient in essential vitamins and minerals, notably vitamin B12, which is required for heart health, nervous system function, and brain function. Consistent deficiency in these essential nutrients can lead to serious health problems or exacerbate existing ones.

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