I’m here with a message that, without a doubt, isn’t going to make me the most popular guy at the vegan potluck.
But it’s one I believe is absolutely critical to the long term health of our movement, and that’s why I’m committed to sharing it.
Vegans need more than just B12.
Sure, Vitamin B12 might be the only supplement required by vegans in order to survive. But if you’re anything like me, you’re interested in much more than survival — you want to thrive.
As it turns out, there is compelling evidence suggesting that a handful of certain nutrients not typically part of the plant-based diet can help ensure optimal wellness and maximum healthspan.
Does the need to supplement a plant-based diet mean it’s inadequate?
A lot of vegans get uncomfortable when we talk about supplements.
But the future of the vegan movement is evidence-based, not ideology-based.
Just because something is good for the animals and the planet, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for human bodies. (Just look at vegan junk food.) A “story” about how a diet is natural isn’t enough.
Instead, it takes science to show that. Evidence.
And the good news is, there’s plenty of evidence in favor of a plant-based diet. Every week science helps to make our case even stronger, as new research shines light on some leading cause of death, the risk of which is reduced by a plant-based diet.
In the face of science, arguments like “How could your diet be considered natural (and healthy) if you have to take B12 to make it work?” are irrelevant.
Instead, just look at the empirical evidence: If research demonstrates (and it does) that a plant-based diet, supplemented by B12 and a few other nutrients, increases longevity and health span when compared with a standard American or Paleo diet — then an evidence-based, plant-based vegan shouldn’t care about the definition of “natural” or other minutiae like that.
Lose the story. Look at the science.
Those vegans you see running ultramarathons, winning triathlons, finishing Ultramans, winning Ultimate Fighting Championship belts, and increasingly succeeding in pro sports… their ultimate motivation for eating this way might be the animals or the planet. Or it might be performance.
Either way, they know that to thrive in their sport, they can’t allow ideology to limit them. So they eat the version of the plant-based diet that maximizes their performance and health — which means skipping the vegan junk food, choosing whole foods, and supplementing with the handful of nutrients that a whole-food, plant-based diet is lacking.
I went from marathoner to 100-mile ultramarathoner with the help of a whole-food, plant-based diet. But I didn’t “just eat plants” and assume everything would work out fine.
Actually, at first I tried to do that. Things were going so well that it was easy to listen to those who told me that a plant-based diet was just fine, without even supplementing with B12. Quickly, though, I learned through experience that not taking B12 was a bad idea. I got the typical tingling and abdominal pains that are associated with B12 deficiency, and that was all the evidence I needed.
Scared straight by that experience, I began to read voraciously about the optimal plant-based diet. I Interviewed elite plant-based athletes to find out how they did it — what nutrients they focused on, and what they ignored. And I stayed abreast of the scientific research around plant-based diets, performance, and health.
I learned that if we want to thrive — not just for now, but for the long-term — on a plant-based diet, there are some nutrients that we absolutely DO need to supplement with.
For the good of our movement — which depends on the health of every individual that’s a part of it — I hope you’ll take the time to consider whether you need to make the effort to ensure you get those nutrients.
Why B12 probably isn’t enough
The fact is that not all nutrients come from plants.
Or, to be more specific, there are essential nutrients not abundantly available from plants (Vitamin B12 and D); others that may not be adequately absorbed from plant-sources (zinc), and still others that may exist as part of certain plant foods, but are not commonly consumed as part of a Western plant-based diet (iodine, Vitamin K2, and certain Omega-3’s).
My hope is not to convince you to take a multivitamin. Rather, it’s to encourage you to be thoughtful about what nutrients you’re regularly consuming and which ones you might not be, and to convince you that complementing your plant-based diet with a handful of essential nutrients is critical for your health.
Why do I say “complement” rather than “supplement”?
A complement is defined as “a thing that completes or brings to perfection.” This is not about adding more of the nutrients that you already derive from plant-based foods (like protein, for example, or most of the vitamins and minerals in a typical multivitamin).
Instead, it’s about complementing your intake of plants with the essential nutrients that are not found in the most commonly consumed plants (or not adequately absorbed from those plant sources).
In Defense of Plants
Don’t get me wrong: plants are nutrient powerhouses, and a plant-based diet is the best way you can eat.
If you look at the nutritional profiles of the most common foods in a particular diet, the clear winner, across the board, is fruits and vegetables (including nuts, seeds, legumes, and the like). Optimal nutrition requires a daily intake of high-quality nutrients, and unprocessed plants provide the most nutrients on a per-calorie basis.
When you weigh the scientific evidence, the compelling fact becomes clear: focusing your diet on whole plants is the best way to ensure vibrant health and maximum longevity. And a big part of the reason is the nutrient-density of plant foods.
But some critical nutrients are not found in plants because they come from bacteria, the Earth’s surface, or the sun’s rays. And, yes, some of them are concentrated by the bodies of animals, so they can be found in animal-foods and not plants.
But the converse is even more true: many nutrients that are abundantly available in plants cannot be found in comparable amounts or quality in animal products.
And since eating animals is certainly not the only means of deriving these nutrients, there’s no reason to compromise your health by consuming these substances which are tied to a range of adverse health outcomes.
Which leads us to a good question: If optimal nutrition depends upon the proper intake of nutrients, what are nutrients?
Macro- and micronutrients in a plant-based diet
In this post, I’m focusing only on the vitamins and minerals deemed “essential” for human health — meaning evidence shows that without those nutrients, the prolonged deficiency will manifest in serious illness, at times irreversible damage, or even early death due to malnourishment.
What that means is I’m not addressing the many beneficial phytochemicals, known and unknown, that a plant-based diet provides. Perhaps at some point they’ll come to be considered “essential,” but for now, you can rest assured you’re getting tons of them if you eat a wide variety of whole plants.
But let’s narrow our focus even more. Nutrients can be categorized into two broad groups: “macronutrients,” including carbohydrates, fats, and protein, and “micronutrients,” which refers to vitamins and minerals. While many protein-fanatics “supplement” with macronutrients, the focus of this post (and the essence of “complementing”) relates to micronutrients.
Vitamins and minerals play critical roles in your body, often working synergistically to catalyze reactions, send signals, or regulate cellular growth.
Vitamins are organic compounds, the letter-names for which you’ve probably heard (A, C, D, E, K, and B’s), while minerals are inorganic substances that naturally occur in the Earth’s surface or water. Some of the most crucial include calcium, chloride, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc.
To provide a final level of granularity, we can separate vitamins into “water-soluble” and “fat-soluble.” This simply means that certain vitamins are absorbed and stored in fat — like Vitamins E and A — while others dissolve in water and more quickly flush out of our system.
Of these many essential nutrients, most can be readily found in and absorbed from plant sources, including vitamins A, C, E, K1, and most B vitamins (niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, B6, pantothenic acid, biotin, and folate).
There are, however, nutrients that are not abundantly found in plants, like Vitamin D and B12. There are others that may not be adequately absorbed from the typical plant-sources because the food also contains agents that block some level absorption; by way of example, many zinc-containing foods also come with phytates that considerably reduce absorption.
And there are still other nutrients that exist as part of plants — just not the plants typically consumed in the West. This is the case for K2, which is readily available from Japanese “natto,” a fermented soybean dish not generally enjoyed outside of certain Asian cultures.
While all this might seem complicated, the takeaway is simple: A plant-based, whole foods diet is a nutrient-dense way of eating, but a handful of nutrients are not consumed as part of a typical plant-based diet.
What supplements do vegans need?
Let’s explore each of these “hard to find” nutrients to see why we need it, and more importantly, what you should do about it.
But first, a warning. This is our research. Use it, but do your own, too. Get blood tests. Talk to your doctor. You know the deal.
The Essential Background
As most people know, there are no adequate plant-sources of B12 — despite what you might have heard about eating “dirty” vegetables. Let’s start by exploring that idea to better understand why it’s critical to complement your plants with a B12 source.
We all know that human life relies on fertile soil. But we don’t often realize that we rely on the life in our soil.
One reason is that soil bacteria produce Vitamin B12. (The bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract manufacture B12 as well. But this occurs too low in your gut for you to absorb the vitamin into your bloodstream.) By eating vegetables straight from the family garden, or foraged from the wild, humans have historically ingested trace amounts of B12.
This is the root justification for not washing your vegetables in order to ingest the B12 that remains on the surface. But here’s the catch: Modern agriculture and other human behaviors decimate these bacterial colonies, so the amount of B12 available on the surface of your unwashed fruits and veggies is questionable at best.
Why It Matters for Vegans
Certain animal products, like red meat, contain B12 — those animals ingested the B12 as they grazed the land, consuming the soil along with their food. Thus, humans who eat other animals are essentially supplementing their B12 stores by ingesting the B12 and the bacteria in and on the meat. Of course, this does not apply to plant-based eaters.
How to Get Vitamin B12 on a Vegan Diet
While you may theoretically be able to derive B12 from dirty vegetables, when you recognize the critical importance of B12, you realize that method is quite risky. You are essentially rolling the dice with a nutrient that is critical for neurological function, for maintaining your immune system, and even for making blood cells and DNA. Vegans who remain B12 deficient for many years could ultimately develop anemia and neurological issues.
You can, alternatively, maintain adequate B12 stores by intentionally eating foods fortified with the vitamin — nutritional yeast is a great example, but many common breads and cereals are also fortified. This, of course, is just another form of supplementation, but one that some people prefer.
Personally, with a nutrient as critical as B12, I prefer to know that I’m getting a precise amount every day, so I take a B12 supplement.
How Much You Need
You don’t require large amounts of B12 in order to maintain optimal levels. That’s because your body secretes the vitamin in tiny amounts over long periods of time.
So long as you consume around 2.4 mcg (that’s micrograms) per day, you can rest assured that your body can utilize ample stores of B12 for the foreseeable future, even if you miss a couple of days or even weeks. (Don’t be alarmed if your supplement provides much more than 2.4 mcg. Because it’s water-soluble, there is little risk of overloading to the point of toxicity.)
The Essential Background
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies, like those of other animals, activate D in reaction to sun exposure.
If you’re like me, you love being in nature, and you spend as much time outdoors as possible. But you also wear clothing and most of your work takes place indoors (although I do my best to hold meetings outside). That means our natural ability to soak up the sun’s rays is limited. As a result, many of us — regardless of dietary pattern — are deficient in Vitamin D. So why does D matter?
Scientific evidence suggests that being “D-ficient” may increase the risk of various chronic diseases, from osteoporosis to heart disease, some cancers, and even multiple sclerosis.
Vitamin D is a factor in the expression of more than a thousand genes throughout the body. If those genes are not expressed properly, any number of issues can ensue, hence the wide-ranging health implications. We have long known the importance of Vitamin D for bone health and immune function, but we’re just now realizing how impactful this vitamin really is.
For just one example, look at heart health. Studies have shown that low Vitamin D levels are associated with overall cardiovascular disease, including a higher risk of heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and strokes.
Why It Matters for Vegans
Just like humans, other animals activate Vitamin D from sun exposure. So people who consume animal products like eggs or fish are ingesting some amount of Vitamin D that way. Moreover, many dairy products are fortified with D, so those items are essentially “supplementing” Vitamin D intake as well.
How to Get Vitamin D On a Vegan Diet
Theoretically, you can activate all the Vitamin D you need just by exposing your skin to the sun. But, for the reasons mentioned above, you might not be getting that much sun.
Or you might have a genetic condition that limits your capacity to create Vitamin D; or another condition — like pale skin — that prevents you from enjoying the sun without burning. Or maybe you live in Chicago or Canada and can’t access the sun’s rays like someone living in Florida.
If you can’t ensure adequate (and safe) sun exposure, it’s best to supplement with some form of Vitamin D. There are many plant-based sources that provide an algae- or mushroom-derived form of Vitamin D. And many plant-based milks (made from everything from nuts to pea protein) are also fortified with Vitamin D.
I suggest looking for D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the type synthesized by the human body that’s more effective in raising blood levels.
How Much You Need
It’s possible you’re already getting enough D from the sun; to find out, get a blood test and make sure that your doctor measures “25(OH)D” or “25-Hydroxy Vitamin D.” Most experts suggest that, for optimal health and even cancer prevention, blood levels of Vitamin D should be greater than 30 mg/dL.
If you, or your physician, is concerned about low Vitamin D levels, many experts, like Dr. Michael Greger, suggest a supplemental dose around 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3. Look for “Vitashine” on the label — that’s the only vegan form of D3.
DHA and EPA (The Other Omega-3’s)
The Essential Background
We’ve all heard of the importance of Omega-3’s for vegans, but we don’t often hear that not all Omega-3’s are created equal.
Omega fatty acids from flax or chia seeds — the “ALA” kind — are an amazing addition to your plate, but vegans may not adequately consume other forms — namely DHA and EPA, which are critical for cardiovascular and brain health.
Omega-3’s play a key role in nearly every cell of your body. As such, a daily intake of these essential fatty acids is critical for optimal functioning — from regulating your cholesterol levels to powering your nervous system.
One of the most important functions — which we are just recently beginning to appreciate — is controlling the low-grade, systemic inflammation that is tied to many chronic diseases, like Alzheimer disease. Some of the strongest evidence, however, relates to the benefits in preventing and treating heart disease.
Why They Matter for Vegans
Fish consume micro-algae and other marine plants, and these species of seaweed are the root source of high-quality EPA and DHA. Those compounds are then deposited in the fish’s fat deposits. That’s why folks looking for a supplemental source Omega-3’s take fish oil capsules. It’s not that fish uniquely produce DHA or EPA; it’s that fish eat Omega-3-rich seaweed.
How to Get DHA & EPA on a Vegan Diet (And Why Walnuts and Flaxseeds Probably Aren’t Enough)
Your body can produce all of the necessary fatty acids required for daily function, except for linoleic acid (LA), an Omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the Omega-3 referenced above. We need to consume those compounds as part of our diet. When we do, our body uses them to synthesize other fatty acids, like EPA and DHA.
The good news is that ALA is abundantly available from plant-based foods, especially flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Just remember to crush or grind the flax seeds because our GI tract is unable to breakdown the shell. If seeds aren’t your favorite food item, you can also find ALA in soybeans and walnuts, among other non-seed sources.
If we can create DHA and EPA from ALA, why not just focus on eating tons of ALA? I’m glad you asked, because this is one of the most common misconceptions among vegans I talk to.
The challenge is that our body is extremely inefficient at deriving DHA or EPA from ALA. Research suggests that less than 1% of ALA is converted into “physiologically effective levels” of DHA or EPA. A blood test can diagnose how well you convert ALA into DHA and EPA; the vast majority of people cannot do so adequately.
So yes, you’re getting plenty of “omega-3s” when you eat walnuts and flaxseeds. It’s just that, unless you’re lucky enough to be someone who can convert ALA efficiently into DHA and EPA, you’re not getting enough of the right kinds.
Now you might be thinking, “Seaweed is a plant, so I’ll just eat that!” The problem with this idea relates to the actual quantity available to absorb.
Because seaweeds are so low in fat, they provide relatively low amounts of EPA and DHA on a per gram basis. So you would have to eat an extraordinary amount of seaweed every single day in order to reap a sufficient amount of Omega-3’s.
Is that a theoretically plausible way of consuming an adequate amount of DHA and EPA? Sure. You could make an argument for eating copious amounts of seaweed, every day, along with a variety of sources of ALA in large quantities. That would be a thoughtful, evidence-based approach.
But practically speaking, most people can’t or won’t do that. That’s why I strongly suggest considering ways to supplement your intake of DHA and EPA.
How Much You Need
If you don’t regularly consume sources of DHA and EPA, you won’t show signs of deficiency in the next year or two, at least not in the same palpable way as you could with B12. The damage is more subtle and corrosive, the sort that is imperceptible until it manifests in a chronic disease later in life.
But the potential benefits of increasing our intake of these compounds are considerable. For this reason, I complement my plant-based ALA with a purely produced, algae-derived source of DHA and EPA.
So how much should you consume?
The scientific community has not reached agreement in terms of a recommended daily intake for DHA and EPA. There have been numerous studies exploring specifically DHA supplementation in vegetarian populations. (That’s because retroconversion of DHA into EPA is possible, so supplementing DHA is an effective way to boost EPA levels as well.)
These investigations offer a sense for the optimal intake, leading some experts to suggest that adults should consume 300 mg of DHA per day. Other dietitians encourage us to aim for a larger intake, like a combined daily dose of EPA and DHA near 650 mg.
Reguardless, it’s recommended that most vegans take a DHA/EPA supplement. Check out our B12, D3, and DHA EPA supplement for vegans here.
The Essential Background
Your body relies on iodine in order to create essential thyroid hormones. Without those, you would be unable to properly regulate metabolism and other vital functions. This process is even more important for pregnant women and children because a growing human relies on thyroid hormones for skeletal and brain development.
Iodine is similar to the Omega-3’s in that this mineral does exist as part of certain plants — especially seaweeds — but may not be adequately consumed as part of a typical, Western plant-based diet.
Just ask yourself, do you eat a lot of kelp, hiziki, kombu, or wakame? Maybe at a sushi restaurant, but those are not daily staples for most of us.
Aside from these marine plants, there are land-grown iodine sources like cranberries and potatoes, but the iodine content largely depends on the cultivation practices, soil quality, and the iodine levels in that particular plot of land. It’s therefore a bit of a gamble to rely on these as your iodine sources, and most research suggests that these plant-foods are insufficient to meet your iodine needs.
Why It Matters for Vegans
Much of the table salt sold in grocery stores is fortified with iodine, hence the name “iodized salt.” But many vegans and other health-conscious eaters have upgraded to more natural forms of salt, like sea salt or himalayan rock (also referred to as “pink”) salt, which don’t have the added iodine.
Further, people who consume dairy get small amounts of iodine that’s left behind by the products used to clean dairy processing equipment — one iodine source I’m quite happy to miss out on.
How to Get Iodine on a Vegan Diet
If you decide to supplement your iodine intake, that doesn’t mean you have to ingest the mineral in pill form. You can simply make sure to eat one of those sea-plants, like kelp, on a daily basis.
Another easy way is adding a dash of iodized salt to your meal, but remember that many natural salts do not contain iodine. And keep in mind that relying on salt as your “supplement” comes with drawbacks– the serving of iodine could also increase your daily dose of sodium, which some experts warn could increase your risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions.
If you worry about that, or just want to ensure an accurate daily dose, you might want to rely on a capsule or liquid form.
How Much You Need
Whatever your chosen form — seaweeds, iodized salt, or part of a multivitamin — try to reach the recommended daily intake of 150 mcg for adult men and women.
The Essential Background
Most of us don’t realize is that Vitamin K, like the Omega-3’s, comes in multiple forms. One of those, K2, has only recently been understood to serve as a vital component of an optimal nutritional profile.
If you only take away one thing about K2, you should remember that it is critical to enable your body to properly manage calcium. That means moving calcium away from soft tissues, like your brain and your heart, and towards your bones and teeth.
The biological mechanisms by which K2 operates are the subject of many ongoing investigations, but the benefits and potential risks are already quite clear. K2 plays many diverse roles and recent studies suggest it helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, like coronary artery disease. One way this is accomplished, similar to the Omega-3 fatty acids, is by combating chronic inflammation, which is linked to many of the leading killers worldwide.
But that’s not the only way K2 impacts our body. By ensuring calcium is properly managed, K2 is critical in everything from preventing calcification of arterial walls to promoting strong bone density.
Why It Matters for Vegans
The critical realization is that Vitamin K comes in different forms. Many of us fail to recognize this, and assume we’re covered because we consume lots of Vitamin K1 through a typical plant-based diet. Indeed, K1 is easily attainable through a variety of plants, especially green, leafy vegetables, but K2 is not. (K3 is a synthetic form, so I won’t address that further.)
Since vegans are not consuming butter, egg yolks, or other animal-based foods that contain K2, we need to pay extra attention to our dietary sources of K2. Yet, since K2 is only found in a few plant-foods, which are not usually consumed in large quantities in the West, a supplemental dietary source of may be necessary to ensure your body is functioning at the highest level — and protected from chronic disease in the long run.
How to Get Vitamin K2 on a Vegan Diet
The challenge is that there are only a few plant-based foods rich in K2. The notable examples are certain fermented foods, like the previously mentioned natto, a Japanese dish made from soybeans (which is a pungent and polarizing dish even in Japan).
You might be thinking, “Why can’t I just eat miso and tempeh, since those fermented foods are frequently consumed as part of a Western plant-based diet?”
Yes, those are fermented, but they are not high in K2. That’s the challenge with relying on foods for bacterially derived compounds: There’s no real way to know how much you might be consuming in any given bite, and you may go days or weeks without adequate intake. That’s why I strongly suggest considering supplemental sources of K2.
How Much You Need
While there are recommended intakes for Vitamin K generally (120mcg and 90mcg for adult men and women, respectively), there are not official recommendations for K2 specifically. Nonetheless, you can find experts offering advice, like Dr. Andrew Weil, who suggests 10 to 25 mcg of K2 is adequate to ensure bone health.
With regards to dosing in order to prevent chronic diseases, we’ll have to wait for the scientific community to amass more data.
The Essential Background
Zinc is an important nutrient with a complicated story.
Our body utilizes zinc in a variety of ways. In fact, the mineral helps stimulate the activity of more than 100 enzymes. It also supports proper immune function, plays a role in ensuring normal growth, enables processes like gene regulation, and even helps neurons communicate, thereby enabling memory formation and learning.
Studies have even shown that zinc can help stave off age-related chronic illness by combating systemic inflammation.
Why It Matters for Vegans
Zinc can be a confusing topic. You probably know that many plants contain zinc, but you’ve likely also heard that vegetarians might not be getting enough. To understand why, the critical point to realize is that, just because you’re ingesting a nutrient, doesn’t mean that you’re absorbing it.
There are innumerable factors regulating how much of a substance actually enters your bloodstream: the amount of gut acid available to breakdown a food and pull out the active components; the specific chemical form of those nutrients; and even the other items consumed at the same time. There are also blocking agents that inhibit the uptake of specific nutrients, which brings us back to zinc.
Many vegan foods that are rich in zinc also contain phytates, which hinder our bodies’ ability to absorb zinc. Some medical researchers suggest that, as a result, vegans and vegetarians may need to increase their zinc intake by as much as 50% in order to compensate for the diminished absorption.
How to Get Zinc on a Vegan Diet
To reiterate, zinc is available from a wide range of plant-foods, including legumes, tempeh, and tofu, along with many nuts, seeds, and grains. It can also be derived from a variety of fortified products, like plant-based milks, many cereals, and even certain meat-substitutes.
Just keep in mind, if you consume zinc from the whole foods listed above, be sure to learn about how to enhance zinc absorption by reducing phytates — like roasting nuts and soaking or sprouting beans and grains.
How Much You Need
How can you tell if you’re consuming and absorbing sufficient amounts of zinc?
The easiest way to start is by looking for the symptoms. But be careful for false positives — “dry skin” is not necessarily a symptom of a zinc deficiency. But of course, a more accurate method is to simply ask your doctor to draw blood and check your serum zinc levels.
Before you jump off the couch to schedule an appointment with your doctor, though, keep in mind that research suggests vegans do not have much lower zinc status compared to the general population. A 2013 meta-analysis found that zinc levels in vegans were only slightly less than those of their non-vegetarian counterparts, and the difference was even less when comparing populations in developed nations.
That should be heartening news for us vegans. Nonetheless, given the importance of zinc in so many diverse bodily functions, and the potential complications with absorption, I try to be mindful of the amount I consume each day.
The recommended daily allowance for adults is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. When you look at plant-foods containing the most zinc per serving, you realize that your natural dietary habits may not allow you to reach the daily goal.
If you decide that you might be consuming too little — or are diagnosed with a deficiency — the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests taking a supplement of 150% of the RDA, though other experts suggest a more modest supplemental dose of 50% of the RDA. Since the upper tolerable limit is 40mg per day, either dose is unlikely to pose a threat over time.
Finally, there are other minerals that may or may not be needed as supplements, depending on your definition of “supplement.”
Selenium is important to help protect against neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease, mood changes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as well as reproductive problems in men and women. It’s not in many plant foods (thanks, soil depletion!), but it is in one, and in abundance: brazil nuts. If you want to get selenium this way, one nut day is the right amount for most people.
Magnesium is another one that we can blame soil depletion for, and deficiency is a problem in vegans and omnivores alike. Magnesium also helps with the absorption of iodine, so if you’re going to supplement with iodine, it probably makes sense to also include some magnesium, in the appropriate ratio.
So, in summary…
What supplements do vegans need?
At a minimum, I think you should aim for the following:
- 300-1000 mcg vitamin B12
- 1000-2000 IU vitamin D3
- 300 mg DHA
- 100-200 mg EPA
… per day.
And if you want to cover all the bases, add the following:
- 100-150 mcg iodine
- 8-12 mg zinc
- 50-100 mcg vitamin K2
- 30-50 mcg selenium
- 150-200 mg magnesium
… again, on a daily basis.
You can see these recommendations are pretty similar to Dr. Greger’s.
Other supplements vegans might consider…
The above represents what I consider the essentials. But what about protein, iron, creatine, turmeric, and “healthy” oils?
In my view, these have narrower, targeted uses. Some people don’t need any of them. Others — people over 55, or athletes — might benefit from others, while others won’t.
Here’s a quick, casual look at a few other supplements for vegans to consider.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that I don’t use protein powder anymore. But I give it to my kids — young athletes looking to add some muscle — and recommend it for my parents, since people over age 65 need slightly more protein.
Protein powder is tricky. When so many people wonder “Where do you get your protein?”, it’s easy to think that if you don’t take a protein supplement, something awful will happen. But that’s not true, and there are plenty of good plant-based protein sources.
But when I was training for my 100-miler back in 2013, I happened to run out of protein powder. And, partly out of laziness, partly out of a growing skepticism, I didn’t buy more.
A week passed. Then a month. Then two months. I didn’t die.
Then I ran my 100-miler, and still didn’t die. It’s been seven years since then, and I’m still alive and kicking!
But this doesn’t mean it’s completely useless: If time constraints prevent you from eating a diet based on whole foods (which have all the protein you need), then protein powder is a fast and convenient way to get a little more.
It’s also useful as a psychological crutch. If you’re a new vegan or going vegetarian and your friends are telling you you’re being weird and reckless with your health, the reassurance that you’re “getting enough protein” just by adding a few scoops of vegan protein powder to your smoothie is priceless.
And it’s possible that the optimal diet for certain strength sports, say, bodybuilding or mixed martial arts, consists of more protein than the 10-12 percent of total calories that a diet based on whole foods can offer. In those cases, protein powder is again useful.
If you’re going supplement with protein, I’ll offer two important suggestions: be careful about what’s in your protein powder (watch out for heavy metals, fillers, sweeteners, and common allergens) and don’t take too much — it’s quite possible that athletes and elderly people can benefit from slightly more protein than a whole-food, plant-based diet provides, but we’re talking about 15 or 20 grams more per day, not 100.
Iron on plant-based diets is a tricky subject, because of issues like different iron needs for women and for men, heme and non-heme iron, and absorption.
We’ve got an entire article on iron for vegetarians and vegans, so check that one out for a more complete treatment.
Back in college when I was heavy into weightlifting and trying to bulk up, I started adding flaxseed oil (or Udo’s blend) to my smoothies and protein shakes. Mainly, this was to add calories and omega 3 fatty acids to my diet.
And it worked! As soon as I embraced dietary fats instead of avoiding them, my weight shot up, and a lot of it was muscle. Even after I was past this testosterone-filled phase of my young adult life, I continued to use the oil in my smoothie, thinking of it as a health food. (It does provide ALA fatty acids, but as we said above, this is only part of the omega 3 story.)
As I’ve moved towards a diet based more and more on whole foods — and oil is decidedly not a whole food — I no longer think of oil as a health food. More than simply not adding it to my smoothie anymore, I’ve recently removed it entirely from my everyday diet: at home, we no longer cook with olive or coconut oil, and instead simply use water for sauteing.
Why? It’s a topic for another post, but in short, the caloric density is unbelievably high compared to even the fattiest whole foods you’ll find in nature — oil contains 4,000 calories per pound, compared to around 100 calories for most vegetables. And if you’re concerned about protein, you can immediately do better by removing the single food in your diet that packs the largest number of calories per ounce, calories that are completely free of protein, making more room for the rest of the foods in your diet, those whole foods that do contain protein. The same goes for most micronutrients, too.
I’m not anti-oil. Just like with protein powder, it has some targeted uses (not least of which, for me, is a gourmet restaurant meal now and then). If you’re looking to bulk up, sure, add oil to your diet for a little while. But as an everyday food for a typical person, I think it does more harm than good.
Turmeric is more food than supplement. In fact, it’s one of my seven foods to eat every day.
Turmeric has numerous health benefits, most notably helping to prevent (or even fight) certain types of cancer. It’s also been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which is beneficial for both long-term health and potentially to athletes for speeding recovery from workouts.
Dr. Greger suggests a quarter-inch of the fresh root per day, or quarter-teaspoon of ground turmeric daily. The different forms offer different benefits, and a small amount of black pepper eaten at the same time is known to increase bioavailability by up to 20 times.
Creatine has always held a fascination for me, dating back to when I was a skinny kid and it was billed (by my friends) as a miracle supplement for bulking up.
When I used it in college, the results lived up to the hype. To this day, when I get too thin from running (not unhealthily thin; I just prefer not to look that way), I like to spend a few weeks in the gym putting some pounds back on, and when I do, I sometimes take creatine to help … and it certainly does.
I’ve seen interesting studies on other benefits of creatine, including a few that showed that when vegetarians take creatine, they perform better on cognitive tests.
Since most of the creatine human beings get (beyond what our bodies make) comes from meat, is it possible that, like vitamin B12 (see below), vegetarians and vegan benefit by adding it back in the form of a daily supplement? I haven’t seen enough evidence to go that far, especially because the long-term effects of creatine supplementation still aren’t completely known.
Creatine is interesting to me, but I’ll wait for more research before I start using it on any sort of consistent basis.
The Only 2 Supplements I Take Now
1. Complement Plus Vegan Essential Nutrients
After I learned about the handful of nutrients that most vegans should supplement with (detailed in the first part of this post), I was frustrated to find that there was no way for me to get all of these nutrients — and only these nutrients — from a single source.
Sure, I could take a normal multivitamin and add a DHA/EPA supplement, but I don’t want any more of what’s in a normal multivitamin than I get from my food! Even vitamins which were long thought to be safe in high doses have turned out not to be; as an example look at vitamin A, which has been linked in large doses to cancer.
My plant-based diet provides me with plenty of most nutrients; it’s just the ones detailed above that I’m missing. Specifically:
- Vitamin D3
- Vitamin K2
Since a single source of all of these, and only these, didn’t exist, I invented one. It’s called a vegan multivitamin called Complement Plus (remember, the “complement” idea?). Check it out and consider whether it could help you like it has my family, and thousands of others.
I try to get a mix between fresh and ground. So each day, I’ll either eat a quarter-inch slice of fresh turmeric alongside my salad (sprinkled with black pepper to increase absorption) or a basic ground turmeric capsule.
Supplement your vegan diet to help it last
I’ve made it my mission, ever since I started No Meat Athlete, to remove the ideology, preaching, and dogma from healthy, plant-based eating — and instead let evidence inform our food choices.
Veganism has been around a long time, but until the early 2000’s it really hadn’t succeeded in reaching the mainstream. What made it take off?
To me, it’s when it people began to believe that this diet is one that’s good for THEM, not just for the animals and environment (“what’s in it for me,” right?). It’s when Brendan Brazier, Scott Jurek, Hillary Biscay, and Rich Roll started doing their thing, standing on the podiums at the finish line with (and above) omnivores. It’s when I started No Meat Athlete, and when Forks Over Knives hit the mainstream with the health message.
And it’s when the “weak, scrawny vegan” image began to be replaced by “vibrant, thriving, plant-based athlete.”
Plant-based, evidence-based is the future. And for a lot of unhealthy people, it represents hope, a solution to our health, environmental, and economic problems (and that includes the animals, of course).
It’s the smarter form of veganism. Veganism built to last. Veganism for the future.
So there you have it. But for all I’ve learned about supplements over the years, the biggest lesson is that they generate a lot of discussion (and often, disagreement)!
The comments section is the place for that, as long as it’s friendly and productive. Let me know what you agree with and what you don’t, and what supplements you take (or don’t!), so we can all learn something from the discussion.
For more on vegan supplements, check out:
- What Supplements Do Vegans Need? [Podcast]
- The 7 Supplements I Take, 2019 Edition
- Examine.com’s Kamal Patel on Which Supplements Vegan Athletes Should Consider [Podcast]
- Whole Food Nutrition Versus Supplementation [Podcast]
- NMA Radio: All About Supplements! [Podcast]
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