Everyone, regardless of whether or not they are vegan, needs to be aware of any nutrient deficiencies they may experience due to an unbalanced diet and/or poor digestive function - you are not what you eat, you are what you absorb!
The need for supplements is definitely not limited to vegans, however, for the purpose of this article we will focus on some of the deficiencies that may develop if a vegan diet is not properly balanced.
The discussion of supplements for vegans is not an argument for vegan diets being unnatural, because many omnivores also have deficiencies. Personally, I would rather take a couple supplements and be super healthy and full of energy than to avoid supplements in order to try and prove that vegan diets are our natural diet (since doing extensive research for teaching the Evolution of Cultural Diets this may be a topic for a future post!). It is interesting to note that the animals people consume are fed a supplemented diet and dairy is also fortified with many nutrients, so an omnivorous diet relies on supplementation as well.
Please note, not all supplements are created equal and are never meant to replace a healthy balanced whole-food diet. Read more here about how to choose the best supplements.
Here Are The Top Nutrients To Be Aware Of And The Best Ways To Meet Your Needs:
Vitamin B12 - if you eat packaged foods that are fortified with B12 you will be getting trace amounts, however, I still recommend a sublingual methylcobalamin supplement, especially if you eat a lot of seaweed and algae - these foods are great and there is no reason not to eat them but they do contain B12 analogues which can bind to and block B12 absorption.
Vitamin D3 - there are now lichen-sourced vegan D3 supplements available. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere it is best to supplement 1000IU from October - March (or even a higher dose if you have low levels - work with your ND to determine your individual dosage), and perhaps continuing with a lower dose in the summer if you do not spend enough time outside.
DHA/EPA - these are the long-chain active forms of omega-3. Chia, flax, hemp, and walnuts do contain ALA omega-3 but the body has to convert this form into DHA and EPA and the conversion rate is very low. Definitely try to eat lots of omega-3 rich foods but I also recommend an algae-sourced DHA/EPA supplement as well. They are available in capsule or liquid form. There are also some flax oils that have added algae DHA.
Iron - if you are eating a wide variety of plant-foods and don't have any digestive issues it shouldn't be difficult to get enough iron. However, if you know you are low or have low energy then I recommend a whole-food source iron supplement (Pranin, Garden of Life, Megafood, and Botanica make whole-food sourced iron supplements).
Calcium - again, if the diet lacks variety (especially dark leafy greens) or there are issues with digestion (both iron and calcium require sufficient stomach acid in order to be absorbed) then you may need to look into supplementation. Similar to iron, it is beneficial to find a whole-food based supplement. Otherwise, a vegan diet with lots of leafy greens, nuts, and seeds should supply enough calcium.
Iodine - seaweeds and iodized table salt contain iodine, however, if you do not consume much of these foods it might be worth it to start using kelp or dulse flakes/powder on a regular basis or take a kelp supplement in order to prevent a deficiency. Unrefined sea salt and Himalayan rock salt contains only trace amounts so it is best not to rely on these as a source.
Cholesterol - we need cholesterol, it is so important in fact that our liver produces it. Plant-foods do not contain cholesterol, however, when a vegan diet includes enough healthy fats and our liver is functioning properly then we will be able to produce all the cholesterol we need. Deficiencies can develop on extremely low-fat vegan diets.
Vitamin K2 - we can get lots of K1 from leafy greens and fruit but K2 is a bit harder to come by (Natto - a super fermented soy product contains K2). However, when we have a healthy balance of beneficial intestinal bacteria then these bacteria can produce enough K2. To support a healthy intestinal microbiome it is important to eat fermented foods and take a high quality dairy-free probiotic (except for issues with histamine intolerance), as well as eat enough fibre-rich foods. Certain types of fibre are the food for intestinal bacteria, they are known as prebiotics. If dysbiosis (unbalanced or low beneficial intestinal bacteria) is present or if there are issues with bone density it may be advisable to take a K2 supplement.
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Shawna Barker BSc., RHN is a nutritionist, college instructor, and raw food educator.