What supplements do vegans need to take? This is a common question almost any new vegan has. It’s incredibly important to know how to meet your nutrient needs when transitioning to a vegan or mostly plant-based diet. While vegan diets can support health at all stages of life, the diet needs to be well planned and properly supplemented.
Sometimes people claim that vegan diets are “natural” and therefore supplements aren’t necessary. This is not an evidenced based recommendation.
This post covers:
- What Supplements do Vegans Need?
- Vegan Vitamin B12 Supplement
- Vegan Vitamin D Supplement
- Vegan Omega 3s Supplement – EPA and DHA
- Iodine Supplement for Vegans
- Calcium Supplement for Vegans
- Vegan Iron Supplement
- Zinc Supplement for Vegans
- Other Important Nutrients for Vegans
Please note: This post is for informative purposes only. It is not prescriptive; individual needs vary. Always consult your doctor (or primary healthcare provider) before starting or stopping supplements.
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What Supplements do Vegans Need?
There are several important nutrients vegans need to know about. I’ve written detailed (and evidence-based) articles for all the important nutrients on a vegan diet.
As the starting point, it’s generally recommended for all vegans to take a vitamin B12 supplement. There are no reliable sources of vitamin B12 from plant-based foods.
Other supplements commonly recommended to vegans include Vitamin D which is challenging to get as an omnivore and vegan. It’s common to require vitamin D supplements.
Beyond vitamin B12 and vitamin D, omega 3 supplements are sometimes recommended to vegans too. Specifically, EPA and DHA may be helpful, since these nutrients are challenging for the body to produce.
Iodine is the final nutrient that may require supplementation in a majority of vegans, but this is largely dependent on the type and quantity of salt you consume.
Calcium, iron and zinc are essential minerals and may or may not require supplementation, depending on the individual.
Vegan Vitamin B12 Supplement
Vitamin B12 is not present in plant-based foods (at least, active forms of vitamin B12 are not present). Therefore it’s recommended for all vegans to take as a supplement.
Dietary reference intakes show that adults need 2.4 micrograms of B12 per day 1. However, there are concerns with absorption of vitamin B12 and recommendations for vegan vitamin B12 supplements are:
- Daily vitamin B12 supplement (cyanocobalamin) of 25-100 mcg OR
- Twice per week vitamin B12 supplement (cyanocobalamin) of 1,000 mcg 2.
Additionally, eating 2 servings of food fortified with 2.0-3.5 mcg vitamin B12 each day, at different times of the day may be adequate 2.
Please note the recommendations for vegan vitamin B12 supplements are for cyanocobalamin. Other forms of vitamin B12 are not well researched, may not be as stable and larger doses may be necessary 2, 3, 4. I’ve found methylcobalamin to be the most popular form of vitamin B12 on the market, so read labels before buying.
Vegan Vitamin D Supplement
The body can produce vitamin D from skin exposure to the sun. However, for a majority of people, this isn’t a practical method (ex. work indoor jobs, winter months, cover skin with clothes and/or sunscreen, darker skin tone etc.).
Therefore, vitamin D supplements are often recommended for people who don’t produce enough from the sun and/or consume enough vitamin D fortified foods. In Canada, vitamin D is fortified into liquid cow’s milk and margarine 5. Many plant-based milk alternatives are also fortified.
The recommended intake of vitamin D is 600 IU per day (for non-pregnant adults) 1. If you supplement with vitamin D, a 600 IU supplement is likely a good target.
There are two options when it comes to vegan vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D2 may be adequate for some people, but vitamin D3 is generally known to be more effective. Vitamin D2 is always vegan but there are a few vegan vitamin D3 supplement options on the market.
Vegan Omega 3 Supplement – EPA and DHA
Vegan omega 3 supplements are commonly recommended to help vegans increase intake of EPA and DHA.
There are 3 main types of omega 3 fatty acids and only ALA is present in adequate amounts in plant-based foods. ALA is then converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the body isn’t very efficient 6.
Since EPA and DHA are generally found to be important for human health, it’s often recommended for vegans to take an omega 3 supplement specifically one that provides EPA and DHA 6.
Vegan omega 3 supplements are typically sourced from algae (non-vegan options are typically sourced from fish).
When selecting a vegan EPA and DHA supplement, 200-300 mg of DHA is typically a recommended amount 6. EPA may be less of a concern if consuming enough ALA in the diet, but most supplements seem to provide about 300 mg of EPA which should be ok.
Iodine Supplement for Vegans
Iodine is really only present in two vegan food options: seaweed and iodized salt.
Seaweed generally contains some iodine but it’s not really possible to quantify how much, and there can be great variation between types of seaweed (and even among the same type of seaweed).
Iodized salt is the only reliable source of iodine for vegans. With the popularity of alternative salts (ex. sea salt, pink salt etc.) vegans could miss getting iodine in their diet. These alternative salts are typically not fortified with iodine and do not provide adequate amounts of this essential mineral. However, there are some iodized pink salts and iodized sea salts on the market.
A half teaspoon of iodized salt per day provides adequate iodine for non-pregnant adults 7.
Vegans who don’t use iodized salt should consider an iodine supplement 7. The daily intake recommendations for iodine in adult men and women (non-pregnant) are 150 ug per day 1. A supplement that provides this amount is a good target 7.
Potassium iodine supplements that aren’t made from kelp could be the best option 7.
Calcium Supplement for Vegans
Calcium is one of the more challenging nutrients to consume in adequate amounts on a vegan diet. There are concerns with how well calcium from plant-based foods is absorbed.
For adults, 1000 mg per day is the recommended intake level of calcium until age 50 for women or 70 for men, when the recommended intake increases to 1200 mg per day 1.
Work with your doctor or dietitian to determine how much calcium you consume on a regular basis and if a supplement is required or not. Typically, if a supplement is recommended, it’s for around 300-500 mg and not for the full daily amount of calcium 8, 9.
Vegan Iron Supplement
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide and may be of particular concern for vegans. Absorption of iron from vegan foods can be difficult for the body but adding vitamin C to a meal can significantly improve absorption.
Iron levels are easy to test (via a blood draw/ analysis) and it may be worth checking your iron levels, especially for pre-menopausal women (women who currently menstruate).
Iron supplements aren’t routinely recommended as intake requirements can be met through food. If someone struggles with low iron or iron deficiency, a plan for supplementation (or sometimes, addition of vitamin C) can be discussed with your doctor or primary healthcare provider 10.
Recommended daily intake of iron for women ages 19-50 (menstruating women) is 18mg per day 1. For adult men, and women over 50 years, the daily intake recommendation is 8 mg per day 1. Relying solely on plant-based sources of iron can increase daily intake recommendations by 1.8x (due to concerns with absorption) 1.
Zinc Supplement for Vegans
Zinc is present in smaller quantities in plant-based foods and absorption may be of concern. While intake requirements for zinc can be met on a vegan diet, some additional steps to increase absorption and a focus on consuming adequate amounts of high zinc foods are often needed.
Zinc supplements aren’t routinely recommended for vegans unless intake from food lacks 11. Speak to your doctor or dietitian to determine if a zinc supplement is right for you.
Recommended daily intake of zinc is 11 mg/ day for males over 18 years, and 8 mg/ day for females over 18 years 1. A fully plant-based diet may require up to 50% more zinc than listed in these recommendations due to lower absorption 1.
The upper limit for zinc is set at 40 mg/day meaning an intake above this level is shown to cause harm in humans 1. Many zinc supplements are well above this level (which is one of the reasons it’s critical to speak with a doctor before starting supplements – as they could contain potentially harmful doses).
Other Important Nutrients for Vegans
Beyond the nutrients listed above, it’s also important for vegans to be aware of their intake of vitamin A and selenium.
Vitamin A is present in plant-based foods as beta carotene. Intake requirements for this nutrient can be met through food if the diet includes one or more servings of high beta carotene foods per day.
Selenium intake recommendations can also be met through diet but may be a concern for people in some parts of the world.
Supplements for vitamin A/ beta carotene and selenium are not routinely recommended. Both nutrients can be harmful at doses above intake recommendations and caution is needed before starting supplements.
Summary: What Supplements do Vegans Need to Take?
Vitamin B12 is essential for vegans (or those on a mostly plant-based diet) to supplement. Vitamin D supplements are also typically required for a majority of people. Given the importance of EPA and DHA in human health, an EPA/ DHA supplement may also be beneficial for vegans. Beyond that, intake needs can be met through food but the overall quality of the diet/ food choices are important to ensure needs are being met. Depending on the individual and their eating routine, iodine, calcium, iron and/or zinc supplement(s) may be indicated although these aren’t routinely recommended.
Always speak with a doctor before starting any supplements. Supplements can pose risk to health if not taken correctly or in accurate doses. Most nutrients have an upper intake limit, beyond which harm to human health has been found.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health or medical condition. It’s not intended to be, and does not substitute for, individualized medical advice from a licensed healthcare provider.
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- Dietary Reference Intakes Tables
- Vitamin B12: A Vegan Nutrition Primer
- Methylcobalamin and Adenosylcobalamin
- Cobalamin coenzyme forms are not likely to be superior to cyano- and hydroxyl-cobalamin in prevention or treatment of cobalamin deficiency
- Fortification (of food products in Canada)
- Omega-3s Part 2—Research
- Calcium: A Vegan Nutrition Primer
- Calcium Part 2—Research
- Iron Part 2—Research
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
Disclaimer: always speak with a doctor before changing your diet. Please read our full website disclaimer.