What vitamins do vegans need to supplement? From Vitamin B12 to Vitamin D, sustainable Omega-3 to Iron discover the supplements vegans require and precisely why these micronutrients are vital for sound nutrition.
Do Vegans Need to Supplement?
So you've just transitioned to plant-based after discovering its advantages, but now you're being advised to supplement. That's confusing, right?
In actuality, most diets count on supplementation in some form - vegan or not.
While comprehensive nutrition is achievable without supplements, it demands a significant effort when certain nutrients are much less available than historically.
To answer the question, "can vegans survive without multivitamins and protein powders" we must first examine the individual's diet.
We must distinguish "healthy" from "vegan". Remember, chips cooked in copious quantities of vegetable fat are considered vegan but not healthy.
A nourishing plant-based diet depends on a diverse assortment of various food sources.
Many follow the "eat the rainbow" rule, which suggests that a range of colours on your plate from various fruit and vegetables can lead to sounder well-being.
If you eat a whole-food, varied plant-based diet, you are far more likely to fulfil nourishment than somebody following a processed diet.
Synthesised by bacteria in cobalt-rich soil, vitamin B12 is essential for our body's energy maintenance systems.
Protein is also very readily available in plant foods - I have never supplemented this with vegan protein shakes, nor will I.
All nine essential amino acids, the constituents of proteins, can be sourced from plants.
The largest land mammal, the elephant, and the exceptionally long-living tortoise get plenty of protein from plant-based diets.
ALA, a form of Omega-3, is found in plant foods, including walnuts and flax seeds.
Calcium and iron are abundant in many plant foods, including dark leafy greens.
There may be no requirement for supplements if you eat a spectrum of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and legumes.
So, in short, if you eat a very balanced diet rich in plant food sources, it is technically possible to achieve complete nutrition.
Why do we need to consider supplementing if we can accomplish so much with food alone?
Why is it Necessary to Supplement?
Achieving comprehensive nutrition solely via diet in the western world is rare and accomplishing this with every meal is not always attainable.
In our continuously developing world, more intensive agriculture significantly impacts global nutrition.
Let's start with B12 (cobalamin) - which predominantly but not exclusively relies on cobalt and bacteria for synthesis (to be made).
If farmland is organic, allowing bacteria to thrive while also in the presence of cobalt, B12 is more likely to be synthesised in the soil.
While farming is intensive, depends on pesticides and continuous re-harvesting, and tilling, nutrient depletion will occur.
A 2006 study (sources linked below) illustrates a relationship between soil quality and adequate nutrition.
This shift in world soil quality can influence our soundness and creates the need for supplementation from the incremental degradation of fundamental components.
Supplementation is not exclusively a vegan concern - pernicious anaemia is on the incline, even among meat-eaters.
The sole reason meat-eaters can get some B12 is through supplementing the farm animals raised for their consumption.
Vegans exclude the "middle man" and supplement themselves.
Degrading soil is one reason, but what else?
Not everyone has the time for a comprehensively balanced diet day-in-day-out. Many workplaces, for example, do not provide nutritious lunches.
We all live busy lives and cannot always ensure the time to prepare fresh meals.
For some, vegetables do not even feature on their plates at all.
Low-veg diets are incredibly nutritionally poor, so supplements may be required if an individual's diet is continually fruit and veg poor.
Additionally, the changing seasons may impact our nutrition and thus our need to supplement.
Vitamin D is produced in the body when exposed to sufficient sunlight, which changes at different times of the year.
In winter, with decreased sunlight exposure, numerous people supplement with vitamin D3.
It is then possible, come summer, to discontinue until winter.
Poorer nutrient content in global food supplies, seasonal changes to the availability of nutrients, and poorer-quality diets are common reasons many people resort to supplements.
Supplements Vegans Need
Nutritional requirements vary from person to person.
Vegan or not, it is technically impossible to provide a formula that suits all.
That said, here is what I believe vegans need to consider supplementing:
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 is essential to all of us - without it, you'll face serious health side effects (from depression to cardiovascular disease).
Chances are, most of you buy mass-produced foods from supermarkets. These are often chemically treated and vigorously cleaned of any soil.
Because B12 is naturally most present in the soil, most of us are not getting enough.
Do only vegans need this? Simply, no. Meat-eaters can get some through supplemented livestock making up a part of their diet. However, the rise of intensive farming and the subsequent decline in ground nutrition has resulted in less naturally occurring cobalt and bacteria synthesised B12 in all of our food.
Vitamin D3 (winter months only)
While vitamin D3 is required to help your body grow strong bones, literature is beginning to note a relationship with improved immune responses.
Some plant foods contain vitamin D, such as certain mushrooms and fortified foods.
However, our best source is through our skin.
We synthesise (produce) vitamin D in our skin when exposed to sunlight, the largest organ in our body.
In summer, we synthesise D3 sufficiently, so long as we spend plenty of time outdoors.
Our bodies cannot produce enough in winter in northern hemisphere locations.
We are living on land much further from the equator than where we originate as a species.
In terms of what you need, those are the two necessary supplements. However, you may want to consider the following.
Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids.
These are essential anti-inflammatory beneficial fats that can significantly aid our soundness.
Omega-3 can reduce cellular inflammation, stimulate white blood cell production, regulate blood pressure, protect against age-related conditions, and offer protection against cardiovascular disease.
Omega-3 assists in elevating your mood, and eye health, while reducing heart, ADHD, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory disease risk.
With Omega-3, a decline in our diet has occurred, alongside a surge in Omega-6.
Our diet was much closer to an Omega Ratio of 1:1 (Omega 3-to-6).
Our diet is now much closer to 1:20.
Previously, for every part of Omega-3, we would receive one part Omega-6 - now we receive 20.
More foods fried in vegetable fats and less focus on fat quality in our diet means we must amend our omega ratio.
Experts believe the closer to 1:1 we can achieve, the more significant the ocular, immune and cognitive benefits.
The following are not be necessary by any means. Some may require specific supplements if they have conditions, as discussed with a doctor.
Vegan Protein Powder
While I would argue that it is not only best but easy to get all the protein you need through diet alone, many lifestyles demand higher protein.
Protein builds and repairs muscle tissue, organs, skin, and essential enzymes required to digest our food for energy.
Sometimes described as amino acids (constituents of proteins), they play a crucial role in muscle mass and strength by laying down new muscle tissue.
While I comfortably get my iron intake through diet and recommend it, some people may require additional.
Iron is essential for producing red blood cells, converting food to energy, immune support, and cognitive function.
Low iron levels result in a low red blood cell count causing some to develop anaemia.
This micronutrient may be essential to consider for women, as on average, women require more than men due to the implications of the menstrual cycle.
Strong bones, muscle performance, boosted enzyme function, and more.
Calcium is an essential micronutrient for your body incorrectly portrayed as something vegans lack through not consuming milk.
However, satisfying Calcium requirements is completely achievable on a plant-based diet as it is abundant in food, like tofu, kale, broccoli, and fortified milk alternatives.
Also known as Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin C is vital for our immune health.
A good variety of fruit and vegetables a day, I recommend at least 7-8, can indeed guarantee this with great ease.
Vitamin C supplements are water-soluble and easy for your body to remove with a low risk of overdose.
So taking plenty of Vitamin C, even when your diet can fulfil your RDI (recommended daily intake), may still offer a benefit.
To give your body a kick of vitamin C, you can add even more to your diet by supplementing.
However, nothing will beat whole food sources.
Seaweed & Spirulina
Known as a "nutrient-dense food", spirulina is a blue-green powdered form of algae.
Well, it provides serious nutrition.
Firstly, this stuff is a great iron source but additionally packs vitamins A, B, C and E.
This stuff can provide cellular protection.
Spirulina, therefore, benefits soundness from stronger immunity to higher energy uptake from food.
Cocoa Powder and Cacao
According to Dr Michael Mosely, chocolate may be an essential nutrient.
Not milk or sugar - we are not talking sugary branded chocolate bars.
Instead, we are discussing cocoa or cacao.
Dr Michael Mosely states cocoa, broken down by our bodies, creates a by-product that expands our arteries.
Expanded arteries can reduce circulatory pressure and heart strain.
Cocoa is also known to support your gut bacteria due to its flavonoid and polyphenol content.
Additionally, cocoa is very iron-rich.
So if you need an extra kick, or want a sure way to boost daily iron intake, consider including cocoa regularly in your diet.
Maximum Nutrition without Supplements - a Food Guide
Supplements are not for everyone, and studies show a correlation between higher supplementation and poorer soundness.
So what is, in my opinion, the best answer?
We should try to replicate a diet as natural as possible.
A flourishing diet replicates what we would have eaten in "the wild".
To understand our natural diet, we must examine both the diet of our closest ancestors and our physical adaptations for eating.
For example, a physical evolutionary feature of carnivorous animals is large canines.
Large canines are for tearing into other animals.
Let us compare this with our incredibly short canines.
The majority of our teeth are molars.
The physical adaptation of our teeth suggests evolution toward grinding fibrous foods, such as plant foods.
Our stomach acidity and the structural composition of our teeth do not suggest we would naturally rely on meat as a food source.
Add to this our utilisation of the microbiome.
Our gut bacteria spend their time in our gut absorbing indigestible fibres into compounds advantageous to us.
The composition of our gut, focused on extracting energy from fibrous plant-food sources, definitely suggests we were naturally favour plant foods.
Next, carbohydrates are our primary energy source for cognition, metabolism and movement.
Meat is not a good source of carbohydrates, where fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes all are.
So, tip #1 - reduce meat consumption to eat a more natural diet.
Orangutans, opportunistic foragers, roam and forage on the move.
The primary food sources are fruit, young leaves and shoots, flowers, bark, and insects.
Inadept to the modern Western diet, we are evolved towards fruits and fibrous plant constituents.
On top of this, of the 250,000+ edible plants on our planet, we now only eat around 200.
Not all of these plants will be missing or necessary.
But we certainly are missing variety in our diets.
So, tip #2 is to eat varied fruits and vegetables and actively diversify your selection of plant foods.
More whole plant foods mean more fibre.
More fibre means better-fed microbes.
Better-fed microbes mean improved gut soundness.
There is a single-celled organism (microbiota) for every cell in your body.
These microbes are a mixture of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other parasites.
Think of these not as scary, dangerous, and disease-causing, but realise we have lived with these little beings in our gut for millions of years as a species.
They have grown and evolved with us. And to our diet.
They also eat our food alongside us.
But, they typically only eat the foods we can't.
Most microbes gather in the large bowel, where most of our digestible food has already been broken down and taken up by the body.
What does this mean?
Indigestible fibres in sweetcorn, for example, cannot be digested by our gut.
But they can be digested by our microbiota.
These microbes break down the fibres into compounds we can use.
In essence, this means we can get more energy with an abundance of healthy bacteria from foods we typically cannot digest.
When they digest foods we can't, they turn the fibre into beneficial metabolites (broken down food) and nutrients.
So, tip #3 - eat more fibre to feed the good bacteria in your gut and get more out of your food.
Additional to reducing meat and eating a variety of whole plant foods, it is valuable to learn which foods are plentiful sources of certain essential nutrients.
Best Plant-food sources of Essential Nutrients
Let's explore vegan dietary sources of B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3, Iron, Calcium, and Protein.
Supplements are not for everyone, so how can we get the most from food?
Dietary Sources of Vitamin B12
It is best to supplement B12 when dietary sources are so few.
There are, however, some natural food sources suitable for vegans.
Fortified Nutritional Yeast
Many use this nutty, cheesy flaky powder as a vegan alternative for parmesan.
However, there is strong evidence that fortified nutritional yeast can increase B12 levels significantly.
According to Healthline, some fortified nutritional yeast can provide over 700% of your daily intake reference.
Fortified cereals mostly contain artificial B12, not derived from animals in any way.
Most fortified cereals are a vegan-friendly food source of dietary B12.
Fortified Rice, Oat, Soy and other Plant Milk
Manufacturers fortify the majority of plant-based milk alternatives with B12.
Dietary Sources of Vitamin D
One of the best dietary sources of vitamin D is mushrooms.
Certain types of mushrooms, like the maitake mushroom, can contain nearly your entire daily requirement in just 50g.
Shiitake mushrooms (12% RDA per 50g) also contain some, but significantly less than raw maitake mushrooms (94% RDA per 50g).
Orange Juice (Fortified)
You can also buy Vitamin D fortified orange juice providing additional dietary vitamin D per glass.
Dietary Sources of Omega 3
While EPA/DHA (two vital forms of Omega 3) primarily are found in seafood and fish, they are also in algae.
So algal oil OR algae-based supplements are your best bet, I'd argue essential, for those two forms of Omega 3 fatty acids.
However, there is a form of Omega-3 readily available in plant foods, ALA (alpha-Linoleic Acid).
ALA may be deemed inferior to EPA/DHA.
Despite this, ALA can benefit cognitive function and increase uptake of EPA/DHA.
As mentioned previously, with Omega fats (mainly n-3 and n-6), we are looking to re-optimise the ratio to favour equal amounts of Omega-3 and Omega-6 or more Omega-3 than 6.
Flaxseeds and Flax Oil
Ratio: 4:1 (of n-3:n-6). Per tbsp: 7258mg.
Flaxseeds are a fantastic, highly-concentrated source of Omega 3 with four times more Omega 3 than 6.
Ratio: 1:3 (of n-3:n-6). While not 1:1, this is still a great source of Omega-3, which is much more balanced than most fatty foods in our diet.
Walnuts are a great source of Omega-3, often disregarded as you would have to consume an awful lot to meet your RDA.
But, it is still a fantastic and healthy source of this fatty acid and can form part of a nutritious diet.
Dietary Sources of Iron
A cup of black beans comes to 16mg of iron.
For most people, 16mg is more than enough.
Natto - fermented soybeans, contains 15mg per cup.
Tahini - sesame seed paste contains 2.6mg per 2 tablespoons.
Again, essential nutrient territory - Dark Chocolate contains 7mg per 3oz.
You can see how eating comprehensively should mean vegans do not need to supplement this.
However, some do require supplements here if they are not working with a qualified practitioner and require, for whatever reason, a higher amount.
For example, anaemics will probably be recommended by a professional to consume higher amounts.
Dietary Sources of Calcium
Who needs milk anyway? Many plant foods are rich in calcium and contain fibre.
Tofu is a fantastic and calcium-packed soybean product offering 400mg per cup! For most, 400mg is around 40% of your RDA in just one ingredient.
These greens are high-fibre and benefit the microbiome while packing in around 25% RDA in just a cup.
1/2 a cup of whole almonds contains around 20% of your RDA, again just with one ingredient.
Fortified Milk Alternatives
One cup of fortified alternative milk contains on average around 300-400mg of calcium, which can improve your immune function and strengthen bones without harming animal life.
So we can meet calcium requirements without supplements or the need for dairy milk.
A cup of collard greens with some tofu and broccoli, with plenty of cups of tea prepared with plant-based milk alternatives, can bring you close to the RDA.
Dietary Sources of Protein
Protein comes up more often than it deserves to.
"Where do you get your protein from?"
For as long as promotions that meat is "high protein", it is accepted that plants, too, are high in protein.
The proteins consumed by the animal had to have come from plant sources.
The elephant, vegan. The beef cow, vegan.
Meat is not the highest quality protein source.
It comes with dense fats and excessive cholesterol.
Cholesterol and dense fats slow down performance through arterial restriction.
If you want to make gains, you want cleaner, more efficient, less inflammatory plant proteins.
Seitan is made using vital wheat gluten and makes a delicious plant-based meat substitute for its high protein value at 25g per 100g.
18g per cup of Lentils makes this a solid source of plant-based protein. What is more, it is super lean.
Like marmite, you love or hate this one. I cannot get enough personally, and at 8g per 2tbsp, this makes a sure contender.
Chickpeas, Baked Beans, Black Beans
These three all come in at 14-15g per cup. Again, amazingly versatile lean sources of clean protein.
Peas are making a rise in the world of protein powders. Pea protein powder is dairy-free and great for building muscle.
Pistachios boast 25g of protein per cup. That is amazing!
Yes, vegans need B12, but so too could everyone.
D3 is required in the winter months - again, not just vegans.
Omega-3 is in decline in everyone's diet and desperately needs putting back, so consider the importance of this one - whoever you are!
Vitamin C can be an addition to a healthy diet but is in no way necessary.
While many people intake sufficient dietary iron, others cannot get by without supplements.
Finally, the ever-popular algae spirulina is by no stretch needed but a powerful superfood we should all consider.
When eating a broad range of foods, you need to reintroduce soil from organic foods back into your diet to satisfy nutrition without supplements.
However, this requires a focused diet.
The chances are that you require B12 supplements.
Sources & Further Reading
The following articles, resources and studies have either been used for research purposes in the writing of this article or as suggested furthering reading.
1 - HealthyLife: 'Declining Nutritional Values of Food in the UK'
2 - Grace N D: 'Effect of ingestion of soil on the iodine, copper, cobalt (vitamin B12) and selenium status of grazing sheep'
3 - Oregon State University: 'Vitamin B12'
4 - Rise of the Vegan: 'B12: Why it's not just a vegan issue'
5 - Healthline: 'Omega-3s Can Fight Autoimmune Diseases'
6 - NIH: 'Vitamin C'
7 - BBC: 'The Health Benefits of Spirulina'
8 - WorldAtlas: 'What Do Orangutans Eat?'
9 - Healthline: 'Top 12 Foods That Are High in Vitamin B12'