Supplements on a Plant-Based Diet
Certain nutrients are low or absent in a plant-based diet. This post covers the most important nutrients for plant-based dieters to watch out for to ensure you’re meeting your needs!
While a plant-based diet is arguably the healthiest eating pattern and has been shown to reduce the risk of many conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, it can also be low or absent in certain essential nutrients.
Nutrients such as DHA, EPA, and vitamin D tend to be to low, and B12 specifically is completely absent in a strict whole foods, plant-based diet. But these aren’t the only nutrients you should be aware of. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know to ensure you’re meeting your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet and information on proper supplementation.
B12 is only naturally found in animal foods. It is responsible for energy production and cognitive functioning. B12 deficiency may cause inflammation, anemia, and impaired neurological disorders.
Because B12 is only found in animals and animal products, all vegans and vegetarians should take a daily B12 supplement. Reports that foods such as algae or seaweed contain biologically active B12 are incorrect. Plant-based dieters may be able to meet their needs with fortified products; however, due to ever-changing fortification processes, supplementation is the safest option.
While the RDA for B12 is only 2.4 mcg/day, much higher doses are necessary to meet needs due to the low absorption rate of the vitamin. Experts typically recommend that plant-based dieters take at least 25 mcg/day to meet needs.
Enjoy outdoor activities? That’s great because catching some rays is one way to meet your needs for vitamin D. Our skin produces vitamin D using UVA rays. However, those with darker pigmentation, older adults, and people living in areas that have fewer hours of sunlight (37 degrees above or below the equator) are at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D is important for bone health and new research has shown deficiency may be linked to many chronic conditions including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The main source of vitamin D in the diet is some type of fish and eggs and fortified milk, making it a nutrient of concern for plant-based dieters. Your best bet? Take a supplement to ensure you’re meeting your needs, especially if you don’t get at least 20 minutes of direct sunlight exposure a day.
I like Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 Vegan.
It’s a huge misconception that calcium is low in a plant-based diet. Newsflash, dairy isn’t the only food group containing calcium! Cruciferous vegetables, beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds are all great plant-based sources of calcium.
I point it out, however, because it is such an important nutrient and an unbalanced plant-based diet could end up being low in calcium. Long-term calcium deficiency can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis.
As long as you’re eating the aforementioned foods on a regular basis, and not what we call a “fast food vegan,” then you should be fine. Fortified plant milk is also a great way to meet calcium needs.
The RDA for calcium is 1000 mg/day. Aim to include calcium-rich foods at each meal in order to meet this need.
Iron is rich in a plant-based diet, and studies show that rates of iron-deficiency aren’t any higher in plant-based populations than in omnivores. However, the iron found in plants isn’t as readily absorbed as the iron found in animals. Because of this, experts recommend that plant-based dieters consume 1.8x the RDA of iron. For men, this equates to 14.4 mg/day and for women, 32 mg/day.
That’s a lot. Instead of stressing about numbers though, I recommend that plant-based dieters focus on including iron-rich foods at all meals and using what we call “bioavailability enhancers.” Vitamin C, for example, can increase the absorption of iron by 5-6 times. Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting foods can also improve the absorption of iron.
Include iron-rich foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and leafy greens on a regular basis along with vitamin C-rich foods such as strawberries, citrus, bell peppers, and greens to meet needs. It’s also wise for plant-based dieters, especially women of childbearing age, to have their iron levels checked on a yearly basis. If they’re low, you’ll need to supplement.
If you are anemic and need to supplement, I like Floradix Liquid Iron and Herbs.
Zinc plays an important role in health and immunity, and deficiency, though rare, is associated with an increased risk of infections. Much like iron, zinc is widely available, but poorly absorbed, in a plant-based diet. However, studies do not indicate that plant-based eaters have higher rates of zinc deficiency and therefore, routine supplementation is not recommended.
The RDA for zinc is 8 mg/day for women and 11 mg/day for men. Make sure to include zinc-rich sources in your diet regularly such as legume, nuts, and seeds – which you’ll already be doing if you’re focusing on iron!
Iodine is an often-overlooked nutrient, essential for proper thyroid, neurological, and metabolic functioning. Because iodine is mainly found in seafood, dairy, and iodized salt, it can be low in a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Additionally, the use of non-iodized salts such as sea salt or pink Himalayan salt may result in a decreased iodine intake for many people. The RDA for iodine is 150 mcg/day. Plant-based eaters should use iodized salt, monitor their intake, or include a daily iodine supplement.
Like iodine, selenium is mainly found in seafood. It is considered an essential “trace mineral,” meaning we need it – but not a ton of it. The RDA is 55 mcg/day.
While selenium may be low in a plant-based diet, there is one incredibly rich source – Brazil nuts. Just one Brazil nut may contain up to 140 mcg of selenium! But cap it at one – the maximum amount of selenium you should consume in a day 400 mcg, which could be exceeded with just four Brazil nuts.
While not technically a “micronutrient,” choline is an essential vitamin-like nutrient involved in many biological processes. Deficiency can lead to muscle damage and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Choline is especially important during pregnancy as it plays a role in baby’s brain development and may reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
Eggs, liver, and fish are major sources of choline in the diet while plant foods contain such as broccoli, wheat germ, and peanuts contain lower amounts. However, soy foods are rich in choline. Therefore, if you eat about 2 servings of soy per day, you’ll easily meet your choline needs.
Check out my post on Choline to learn more about plant-based sources!
The recommended amount of choline is 425 mg/day for women, 450 mg/day for pregnancy, 550 mg/day for breastfeeding, and 550 mg/day for men.
I recommend supplementing choline during pregnancy to meet increased needs.
Very Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You’ve probably heard of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids – they’re important for your brain and heart, and may play a role in disease prevention. There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet: ALA found in plants, and the “very long-chain” fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are found in seafood and some eggs.
While our bodies can make EPA and DHA from ALA, this is an inefficient process. Because of this, some experts recommend that plant-based eaters supplement with EPA and DHA, especially during pregnancy.
Plant-based dieters can take algae oil to meet their needs, which is actually where fish get these fatty acids in the first place. Essentially, you’re cutting out the middle man!
As you can see, while it isn’t hard to meet your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet, it does take some planning and there are certain nutrients like B12 that absolutely must be supplemented. For this reason, I generally recommend that strict vegans take a daily multivitamin to make sure they’re covering all of their bases.
Plant-based dieters should also consider taking a separate B12 supplement if the amount in their multi isn’t high enough or focus on including a couple of servings of fortified products throughout the day.
What Supplements Do I Take to Get All of My Plant-Based Nutrients?
I frequently get asked about the supplements that I take. I’m happy to share!
- Nordic Naturals Algae Omega
- Thorne Basic Prenatal Multivitamin
- mykind Organics B12 Spray
- Jarrow Fem-Dophilus Probiotic
Please keep in mind though that everyone’s needs are different and what I need may not be what you need – even if we eat the same way! Talk to your doctor to figure out which supplements are right for you.
And if you’re looking for supplement recommendations for children, check out the Plant-Based Juniors’ Supplement Guide!
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Weigh-in: Do you take any vitamins, minerals, or supplements to support your intake of nutrients on a plant-based diet?