As a woman transitioning to a plant-based diet, you may wonder whether you need to take vegan supplements to help your body receive all the vitamins and minerals it needs.
Many vegan proponents strongly claim that a whole food, plant-based diet will easily meet all of your daily nutrient requirements. Yet, some healthcare practitioner strongly encourage vegan women to add at least some supplements to their diet.
With these conflicting views, it’s easy to feel confused!
In this article, I’ll review 8 nutrients you may have difficulty getting from a vegan diet and discuss in which circumstances a supplement may be beneficial.
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 plays several essential roles in the body.
It supports the normal function of your nerve cells and your body needs it to make DNA. Vitamin B12 also helps keep you energized and some studies show it may even help boost your memory and mood (1, 2, 3).
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods or supplements and your body cannot produce it. This means you have to get it from your diet.
Sources of Vegan B12
Some vegan advocates claim that you can get vitamin B12 from certain types of mushrooms, algae, nutritional yeast or even unwashed produce. However, there’s no science backing this up.
Some algae may contain a type of vitamin B12 but there’s still debate on whether this form is active in humans. That’s why for now, vitamin B12-fortified foods and supplements are the only reliable vegan sources of vitamin B12 (6, 7, 8).
How to Supplement
Vitamin B12 is best absorbed in small doses. So the less frequently you ingest it, the more you will need to take at once.
The daily recommended intake of vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg per day for adult women, 2.6 mcg per day during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg per day while breastfeeding (1).
A vitamin B12 deficiency can take years to develop. So it’s a good idea to get your blood levels of active B12 periodically checked. This is especially handy if you are not currently taking any vitamin B12 supplements.
Methylmalonic acid (MMA) is a good alternative marker for your vitamin B12 status (12).
High intakes of seaweed, folic acid or vitamin B6 can falsely inflate your test results. So if you regularly include these foods in your diet, you may want to get your MMA levels checked instead of your active vitamin B12 ones.
If you are unable to reach the vitamin B12 recommendations from fortified foods alone, I strongly encourage you to consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement. You can opt for a daily dose providing 25-100 mcg of cyanocoblamin or a weekly one providing 2,000 mcg.
You may have read about other forms of vitamin B12. However, cyanocobalamin is the most well-studied, affordable and effective for most people. This is why it is the form I recommend for most women (13, 14).
In sum: Vitamin B12 is a nutrient all vegan women should be concerned about. Fortified foods and supplements are two easy ways to ensure you get enough of it. Periodic blood tests are also a good idea.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin since your body can produce it when your skin is exposed to the sun.
The recommended daily vitamin D intake for adults is 600 IU (15 mcg) per day. Pregnant and nursing mamas should aim for 800 IU (20 mcg) per day (20).
Sources of Vegan Vitamin D
Very little foods naturally contain vitamin D and it can be difficult to meet the recommended daily amount (RDA) from fortified foods alone.
One way to boost your vitamin D levels is to spend a little time outdoors. Some women can make enough vitamin D by exposing their face and forearms for 15 minutes to the midday sun without wearing sunscreen.
However, this doesn’t apply to everyone. For instance, women with darker complexions and those living in northern latitudes or colder climates may find it difficult to produce enough vitamin D from sun exposure alone (22, 23, 24).
What’s more, many dermatologists warn against using sun exposure to boost vitamin D levels due to the known negative effects of excess UV radiation (25).
How to Supplement
Supplements are one reliable way to ensure you get your fill of vitamin D.
They exist either as vitamin D2 or D3 forms. Vitamin D2 is likely adequate for most people, however, vitamin D3 may be slightly more effective.
Vitamin D supplements come in solid or liquid versions. A solid vitamin D supplement can be taken as a daily dose providing 600-1000 IU (15-25 mcg).
Liquid vitamin D is easier for the body to absorb. Therefore, you may opt to take a liquid vitamin D supplement in one weekly dose providing 4200-7000 IU (105-175 mcg) (26).
If you’re not sure whether a supplement is truly needed, consider getting your blood vitamin D levels tested twice per year.
Once at the end of the summer, when they’re likely to be at their highest, and again in the dead of winter, when they’re likely at their lowest.
If you’re unable to maintain proper levels from fortified foods and sunshine alone, a supplement may be beneficial.
In sum: Vitamin D deficiency is common. Women unable to maintain normal blood vitamin D levels through fortified foods and sunshine alone should consider taking a supplement.
3. Long-Chain Omega-3s
You may have heard of omega-3s.
Pregnant and nursing mamas may want to pay even more attention to this nutrient since it plays an important role in your baby’s brain development (32).
There are two types of omega-3s:
- Essential omega-3 fatty acids: This category includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is the only omega-3 fatty acid that you can only get from your diet.
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: This category includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two omega-3 fats are not technically considered essential because your body can make them from ALA.
Sources of Vegan DHA and EPA
Plant foods rich in ALA include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and soybeans.
EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal products such as fatty fish and fish oil.
Theoretically, getting enough ALA from your diet should help maintain proper EPA and DHA levels. Unfortunately, studies report that the conversion of ALA to EPA may be as low as 5% while conversion to DHA may be near 0% (33, 34).
This may explain why vegetarians and vegans consistently have up to 50% lower blood and tissue levels of EPA and DHA than omnivores, who can get their EPA and DHA from fish (35).
How to Supplement
While recommended daily intakes of EPA and DHA do not exist, most health professionals agree that 200-300 mg per day should be sufficient (35).
They contain the same EPA and DHA you’d find in fish oil supplements but are less likely to contain high levels of pollutants such as mercury. When picking a supplement, try to ensure it provides at least 200 mg of DHA per capsule.
In sum: Long-chain omega-3 fats are important for your health and your baby’s development. Supplements may be beneficial for vegan mamas, especially if pregnant or nursing.
Iodine is a trace element crucial for the health of the thyroid gland, which runs your metabolism.
Women with insufficient iodine intakes can develop hypothyroidism. This can cause low energy levels, dry skin, memory loss, depression, weight gain and tingling in the hands and feet (36).
Low iodine levels during pregnancy or while nursing should be especially avoided since they can delay your baby’s motor and brain development (36).
The RDA for adult women is 150 mcg of iodine per day. Daily requirements increase to 220 mcg for pregnant women and 290 mcg for nursing mamas (37).
Sources of Vegan Iodine
Typically, all plant foods contain some iodine since they take it up from the soil they grown in. However, not all soils contain enough iodine, which makes it difficult to know whether the foods you eat contain enough.
Omnivores and vegetarians tend to get their iodine from dairy. Milk and milk products contain iodine because cow feeds are often supplemented in this nutrient.
Iodine-containing disinfectants are also often used during milking, which further contributes to dairy’s iodine content.
Seaweed and iodized salt are the only two vegan foods considered to provide consistently high levels of iodine.
As for iodized salt, you’d have to consume about half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) per day to meet your daily requirements. This ends up being more salt than typically recommended.
How to Supplement
For all these reasons above, I consider an iodine supplement the most reliable way to ensure you get enough iodine each day.
I find it especially helpful during pregnancy and while nursing, two periods of time when a mama’s iodine requirements are increased.
Liquid iodine drops are an easy and handy way to meet your requirements.
In sum: Iodine plays vital roles in thyroid function and a baby’s motor and brain development. Vegan mamas, particularly if pregnant or nursing, should consider adding an iodine supplement to their diet.
Iron is a mineral with many functions.
It is used by your body to make red blood cells and DNA and is necessary to carry oxygen in the blood. It also plays important roles in energy metabolism (42).
A diet that’s too low in iron can cause you to feel tired, get sick more often and even develop anemia.
The RDA for iron is 18 mg per day for menstruating women and requirements shoot up to a whopping 27 mg per day during pregnancy.
Non-menstruating women, whether due to nursing, the use of some types of birth control or menopause require around 8 mg of iron per day (43).
Vegan Sources of Iron
Plant-based diets are rich in non-heme iron, which is typically more difficult for the body to absorb than the heme-iron found in animal foods (42).
For this reason, vegans are often told that their daily requirements are 1.8 times higher the normal recommendations. However, more studies are needed to establish whether such high intakes are really needed (44).
Plant-foods rich in iron include cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
For more ways to boost your iron absorption from plant foods, make sure to check out the 24 Iron-Rich Plant Foods for Vegetarian and Vegan Mamas.
Vegan Iron Supplements
It’s important to mention that although getting enough iron is very important, getting too much can do more harm than good.
For instance, too much iron can be damaging to cells or block the absorption of other minerals from your gut (46).
Extremely high iron levels may even lead to organ failure, cause convulsions and in severe cases even lead to coma or death (47).
It’s difficult to get harmful amounts of iron from your diet alone but the amount found in supplements can quickly add up.
That’s why it’s best to avoid iron supplements unless they are truly needed. Measuring your blood hemoglobin and ferritin levels can give you a good idea of your current iron status.
In sum: Vegan women not getting enough iron from their diet may consider taking a supplement. That said, too much iron can be harmful so iron supplements aren’t recommended for everyone.
Calcium is used by the body to build strong bones and teeth. It also plays crucial roles in muscle function, nerve signalling and heart health.
Some vegans believe that their calcium needs are lower than omnivores because they do not need to use this mineral to neutralize the acidity produced by a meat-rich diet.
More research is needed to evaluate how vegan diets affect calcium requirements. But so far, there is evidence that vegans who consume less than 525 mg of calcium per day tend to have an increased risk of bone fractures (50).
I strongly believe in better safe than sorry — so I would encourage all vegans to ensure they get 525 mg of calcium per day at the very least.
Pregnant vegans and nursing mamas should aim for 1,000 mg of calcium per day.
Vegan Sources of Calcium
Many plant foods contain calcium.
The richest sources include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, chickpeas, watercress as well as calcium-set tofu and fortified plant milks or juices.
How to Supplement
Most women can easily reach these recommendations through diet alone. But if you find yourself struggling to, a supplement providing 50% of the RDA may be beneficial.
In sum: Vegan women who cannot get enough calcium from their diet should consider taking a supplement. This is especially important for those whose diet provides less than 525 mg of calcium per day.
Zinc is a mineral that the body needs to repair cells and maintain a strong immune system. It’s also crucial for a good-functioning metabolism (51).
A diet containing too little zinc can result in hair loss, diarrhea and poor wound healing.
The RDA for zinc is 8 mg per day and increases to 11 mg per day during pregnancy and 12 mg per day while nursing (50).
Vegan Sources of Zinc
As is the case with iron, the absorption of zinc found in plant foods is somewhat limited.
That’s because many plant foods contain high levels of phytates, which can block zinc absorption. For this reason, vegans are often encouraged to aim for 1.5 times the RDA (51).
Unfortunately, few plant-foods naturally contain zinc. This may explain why vegans often have lower zinc intakes and blood zinc levels than omnivores (54).
As a vegan woman, you can maximize you zinc intake by including daily portions of whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, sprouted breads, legumes, nuts or seeds to your diet.
Soaking nuts, seeds and legumes overnight and opting for fermented soy foods such as tempeh and miso can further boost zinc absorption (55).
How to Supplement
Adding the foods above to your diet should ensure you get enough zinc. However, if you’re unable to eat these foods often enough, a daily zinc gluconate, zinc citrate or zinc picolinate supplement providing 50-100% of the RDA may be beneficial.
In sum: Zinc is another nutrient essential for health. Vegan women with low blood zinc levels and unable to include enough zinc-rich foods to their diet should consider taking a supplement.
Choline is a nutrient your body uses to help your nervous system function properly.
It’s particularly handy during pregnancy and while nursing since it protects babies against neural tube defects and can help with their brain development (56).
The RDA for choline is 425 mg per day and shoots up to 450 mg per day during pregnancy and 550 mg per day while nursing (56).
Your liver has the ability to produce choline however, the amount produced may not meet 100% of your daily needs (57).
Vegan Sources of Choline and How to Supplement
Many plant foods contain small amounts of choline. These, when added together over a whole day, can help most women reach the normal RDA.
That said, if you’re pregnant or nursing, you may find it difficult to reach the increased daily requirements through diet alone.
Since choline plays an essential role in your baby’s development, it may be safest for pregnant and nursing mamas to add a choline supplement providing 100% of the RDA to their diet.
In sum: Most women should be able to get enough choline from foods alone. However, pregnant and nursing mamas may need a supplement to help them meet their increased requirements.
To Sum It Up
Well-planned vegan diets are adequate for all stages of life.
Adjusting your diet should always be your first line of defence against nutrient deficiencies.
That said, certain vitamins and minerals can be hard to get enough of from whole plant foods or fortified foods alone. This is when supplements can become beneficial.
In particular, vitamin B12, vitamin D and DHA-rich algae oil supplements may be particularly beneficial for vegan women. Pregnant and nursing mamas may want to consider taking an iodine and choline supplement as well.
If you’d like more information on a vegan diet during pregnancy, I encourage you to sign-up to my free email course on this exact topic!