Selenium is often overlooked despite being an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in maintaining good health. A plant-based diet may lack selenium, so vegans need to consider a few factors to ensure they consume an adequate amount.
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What is Selenium?
Selenium is an essential mineral with many important functions in the body. It's considered a trace mineral because humans only require a small amount stay healthy.
What Does Selenium Do in the Body?
Selenium has many vital functions in the body, including:
- Oxidant defense: Selenium protects the body’s cells from damage by free radical compounds 1, 2.
- Reproduction: Adequate selenium intake is needed for proper reproductive function and growth of a baby 3.
- Thyroid function: Selenium is required for its antioxidant function within the thyroid and for thyroid hormone metabolism 4.
- DNA synthesis: Selenium may help prevent damage to, and repair DNA 5.
Selenium gets incorporated into proteins that primarily function as antioxidants, keeping cells in the body healthy and free from damage.
Since selenium is an essential mineral, adequate amounts must be consumed through diet (or supplements if needed). Always speak to your doctor before starting new supplements; excessive intake of selenium is known to be harmful 1, 2, 6.
Daily Intake Requirements of Selenium
For adults aged 18 years and above, the recommended daily intake of selenium is 55 ug/day (micrograms per day) 10. This amount is unchanged for vegans or vegetarians.
Selenium absorption should be similar between plant-based and animal-based foods. The main concern for vegan selenium intake is the variation in selenium content of plant-based foods grown in different soil regions.
See the chart below for selenium content of some plant-based foods.
Global food distribution systems help mitigate this issue, but those who primarily purchase local produce, selenium intake might be a concern.
- Male infertility
- Muscle weakness
- Hair loss
- Weakened immune system
- Exacerbation of iodine deficiency and associated symptoms
Selenium deficiency is also associated with certain diseases, including: 1
- Keshan disease: Selenium deficiency, along with another stressor to the body (ex. a viral infection) can lead to Keshan disease, a type of cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle).
- Kashin-Beck disease: A type of osteoarthritis associated with low selenium intake.
Additionally, selenium deficiency may increase the risk of viral infection, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory bowel disease 11.
If you have any of the signs and symptoms listed above, seek a doctor immediately. These can also be indicative of other problems that require medical attention.
Selenium toxicity is rare, but it’s possible from food sources alone. Selenium toxicity is called selenosis 1.
Selenium toxicity signs and symptoms include 1:
- Garlic odor in the breath
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Hair and nail loss or brittleness
- Lesions of the skin
- Skin rash
- Mottled teeth
- Nervous system abnormalities
Many of these could be indicative of another condition and not necessarily selenium deficiency. Seek a doctor’s care if you ever experience signs or symptoms that are abnormal or concerning to you.
How to Consume Enough Selenium as a Vegan
Since selenium is present in soil, most plant-based foods grown in soil contain at least a small amount of selenium. Some foods, like Brazil nuts, whole grains, and legumes, contain higher levels of selenium.
If you live in an area with adequate selenium in the soil and consume a variety of these foods, it’s likely that your selenium intake meets the requirements.
Consuming a variety of foods, including whole grains, should help you to meet selenium requirements. Refined grains also contain selenium, but less than what whole grains offer.
Vegan Food Sources of Selenium
Here is a list of foods and their selenium content. Please note this data was pulled from the Canadian Nutrient File and is reflective of the average selenium content of foods analysed in Canada 12.
Local content of selenium may vary, so consider looking for data from local food analysis 12. Many government bodies publish food databases with nutrient content of the national food supply.
|Food and Quantity||Selenium Content (in ug)|
|Couscous, cooked; ½ C||22.8|
|Whole wheat pasta, cooked; ½ C||19.2|
|Wheat germ, toasted, plain; ½ C||38.8|
|Barley, pearl, cooked; ½ C||7.1|
|Brown rice, long-grain, cooked; ½ C||10.1|
|Whole wheat bread; 1 slice||8.3|
|Whole wheat pita; 1 pita, 16.5 cm diameter||28.2|
|Brazil nuts; 5 medium/ 17 grams||339.7|
|Brazil nuts; 1 medium||67.9|
|Sunflower seeds, kernels; ¼ C||6.2|
|Sunflower seed butter; 1 tbsp||8.6|
|Chia seeds; 1 tbsp||6|
|Flaxseeds, ground; 1 tbsp||1.8|
|Walnuts, halves; ¼ C||1.2|
|Cashews, raw; ¼ C||6.6|
|Peanuts, raw; ¼ C||2.7|
|Pecans, halves; ¼ C||1|
|Pumpkin seeds; ¼ C||3.3|
|Soybeans, boiled; ½ C||6.6|
|Firm tofu, raw; 1 C||26.4|
|Soy milk; 1 C||5.9|
|Pinto beans, boiled; ½ C||5.6|
|Lima beans, boiled; ½ C||1.8|
|Great northern beans, boiled; ½ C||3.8|
|Chickpeas, boiled; ½ C||3.2|
|Black beans, boiled; ½ C||1.1|
|Kidney beans, boiled; ½ C||1|
|Lentils, boiled; ½ C||3|
Please note: data was not available for all foods (ex. Tahini, green peas).
Selenium Supplements for Vegans
Some people question whether vegans need selenium supplements. Data suggests that vegetarians and vegans in the US and Canada have adequate selenium status 2. Therefore, recommending selenium supplements for vegans is not a standard practice.
If you live in an area with well-documented low selenium soil content, it may be helpful to consult a doctor regarding selenium level testing. Based on the results, your doctor might recommend a selenium supplement if deemed necessary.
It's often best to meet nutrient needs from foods first before resorting to supplements. If you're concerned about meeting your nutrient needs as a vegetarian or vegan, speak with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in plant-based nutrition!
Brazil Nuts as a Selenium Supplement
One Brazil nut contains more than the recommended daily intake of selenium for adults. In my house, we jokingly refer to Brazil nuts as our selenium supplements since they are such a rich source of this nutrient.
If you’re at all concerned about selenium intake, and enjoy Brazil nuts, consider adding a few to your weekly diet. Just be sure to not overdo it, as the high selenium levels could cause issues if eaten in excess.
Summary: Selenium for Vegans
Vegan selenium intake may be a concern, especially for those living in areas with low amounts of selenium in the soil. While selenium deficiency is rare, it is possible.
On the other hand, selenium toxicity is also possible from high intake of selenium-rich foods like Brazil nuts, or from intake of supplements that contain high levels of selenium.
If you experience signs and symptoms of selenium deficiency or toxicity, please consult a doctor immediately.
It’s not typically recommended for vegans to routinely take a selenium supplement. Speak with your doctor or dietitian before starting any supplements and if you have any questions.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.