As an essential nutrient, selenium supports a healthy lifestyle. Plant-based foods can provide adequate amounts of selenium, but vegans have must consider a few factors to ensure they consume enough.
- What is Selenium?
- What Does Selenium Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Requirements of Selenium
- Selenium Deficiency
- Selenium Toxicity
- How to Consume Enough Selenium as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Selenium
- Selenium Supplements for Vegans
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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 don’t need a huge amount to stay healthy.
What Does Selenium Do in the Body?
There are many important roles selenium plays 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/ 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 and repair DNA damage 5.
Selenium gets incorporated into proteins that primarily function as antioxidants. Antioxidants keep cells in the body healthy and free from damage. Selenium is also thought to have anti-inflammatory effects and support proper immune function including antiviral protection 6.
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
The recommended daily intake of selenium for men and women over 18 years of age is 55 ug/day 7. This amount holds true 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.
Selenium intake is somewhat dependent on geographical location because selenium is present in soil to varying levels depending on location 2, 6. Certain areas of the world have soil that’s low in selenium. If the selenium content of soil is low, it can put the people in that area at higher risk of selenium deficiency 2, 6.
Global food chains help to overcome this, but for consumers who tend to only purchase local produce, selenium levels are more of a concern.
- Male infertility
- Muscle weakness
- Hair loss
- Weakened immune system
- Exacerbation of iodine deficiency (and the signs and symptoms associated with low intake of iodine)
Selenium deficiency is also associated with certain diseases 1:
- Keshan disease: Selenium deficiency, along with another stressor to the body (ex. a viral infection) can lead to Keshan disease. Keshan disease is a type of cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle).
- Kashin-Beck disease: A type of osteoarthritis associated with low selenium intake.
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.
Preventing nutrient deficiency is often a primary concern when it comes to nutrition. However, when excessive quantities of certain nutrients are consumed (from food and/or supplements), they could produce toxic effects in the body. Selenium toxicity is rare, but it’s possible even 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.
As shown in the chart below, selenium content varies widely in Canadian foods. Grain products tend to provide the highest levels of selenium but other foods like soy beans and tofu, along with certain nuts, seeds and different legumes also provide selenium.
Consuming a variety of foods and including whole grains should help you to meet selenium requirements.
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 8.
Local content of selenium may vary 8. Look for local food analyses as these will vary by region. 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
A common question and concern is if vegans require selenium supplements. Data seems to support that vegetarians and vegans in the US and Canada have adequate selenium status 2. Therefore, it’s not routinely recommended for vegans to consume a selenium supplement.
If you live in an area with known low selenium soil concentration, you may want to speak to a doctor about testing your selenium levels. From this, your doctor may recommend a selenium supplement if it’s right for you.
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!
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.
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- Selenium – Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Selenium in reproductive health
- Selenium and Thyroid Disease: From Pathophysiology to Treatment
- Does a role for selenium in DNA damage repair explain apparent controversies in its use in chemoprevention?
- Selenium and human health
- Dietary Reference Intakes Tables
- Canadian Nutrient File (CNF) – Search by food
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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