There is no argument that when it comes to being healthier, eating more plants is one of the best things you can do.
A diet high in plants is high in nutrients, antioxidants, fiber, and low in calories. It may also help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.
Due to the health benefits of plants and the popularity of plant-based diets, it may seem like there are more people going vegan every day (at least based on the declarations seen on social media).
The latest Gallup Poll says that only 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian and only 3% identify as vegan. But, the same poll found that sales of plant-based foods grew over 8% in 2017 and plant-based milk options make up 40% of the market (1).
Clearly there is a growing interest in plant-based eating, although maybe most people are not willing to go “all the way” with this lifestyle, regardless of what they might claim on their Facebook wall.
If you are ready to become a vegetarian or vegan, it’s not all easy when it comes to getting all the nutrition you need. Although plants are amazingly healthy, they don’t provide every nutrient you need.
Even a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet may benefit from certain supplements from time to time because plants don’t provide it all, at least in the amounts that might be necessary.
What is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?
First, let’s define what it means to be a vegetarian or vegan.
Vegetarian is a bit of a flexible term as people define it in different ways. Some vegetarians eat eggs, dairy, or even seafood from time to time. Mostly they avoid chicken, beef, and pork. What they decide to eat or not eat depends on how they choose to follow this diet pattern and how they define “meat”.
The vegan diet takes a much stricter approach to eliminating animal foods. It removes anything that comes from animal sources from the diet and maybe even the lifestyle. This means eggs, dairy, seafood, and all meat are completely out of the question.
Vegans also avoid food or supplements made with gelatin and sometimes even honey, as it is made from animals. Some vegans don’t use leather products or other types of products made from animal pelts or skins.
A 2015 position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the main professional organization for Registered Dietitians, stated that vegetarian diets can be well-balanced and nutritionally adequate for people of all ages. Based on the research evaluated in the paper, those who follow plant-based diets do tend to have a lower risk of chronic disease.
The paper does mention that in order for vegetarian diets to meet all nutrition needs supplements may need to be used (2). This is particularly true of those following vegan diets, which can be quite restrictive.
If you choose to follow a vegetarian diet, here are a few of the supplements that you may want to consider to ensure you are meeting all your nutrient needs.
Key Supplements for Vegetarians and Vegans
The word protein comes from the word for primary in Greek. This means it is the nutrient of most importance to human health. The body can make the other two macronutrients, carbohydrates and fat, but it cannot make the nine essential amino acids found in protein.
Therefore, to survive we must at a minimum get those nine amino acids from our food in one way or another.
Plant foods do contain protein, but they are usually missing at least one of the essential amino acids. On the other hand, animal foods contain all nine amino acids.
If you want to get your protein from plants alone, you will need to have a general understanding of which foods are high in different amino acids to make sure you are getting adequate amounts of each.
With a varied diet, it shouldn’t be terribly hard to meet your amino acid needs, which is why well-planned vegetarian diets are still considered nutritionally adequate.
Meeting Your Protein Needs
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) per day for protein is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. But, this number is calculated based on an average man weighing 150 pounds and an average woman weighing 125 pounds.
For most of us, we have much higher protein needs than the RDA because we likely weigh more than that. A better way to calculate protein needs is based on body weight.
You need 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means a 200 pound person would need 72 grams a day (3).
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, one option to be certain you are getting all your amino acids is to use protein supplements.
There are many vegan protein options available on the market made from hemp, rice, soy, or peas. They are not drastically different from each other, which one you choose should be based on taste, personal preference, and cost.
Protein powders usually provide between 10-25 grams per serving. The amount of protein in the supplement will depend on how much protein you are getting from other sources in your diet.
Remember a protein powder is just a supplement, it will not replace eating protein-containing foods.
In addition, when shopping for a protein powder look for lower sugar options, aiming for less than 10 grams per serving. Some unflavored protein powders contain very little sugar, but you will have to spruce them up with other ingredients.
Don’t just limit yourself to shakes or smoothies to get your protein in, you can add unflavored protein powder to soups, stews, hot cereals, or casseroles to beef up the protein content.
Related: Best Types of Protein Powders to Buy
Iron is a nutrient needed to make two important proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin. These proteins are responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood and muscles.
Too little iron results in anemia, where the blood cells are not able to properly carry oxygen. This leads to fatigue, shortness of breath, poor learning ability, and lowered immune function (4).
Plant foods do contain iron, but the type of iron in plants called non-heme iron is poorly absorbed.
Animal foods contain heme iron, which is well-absorbed. It is recommended therefore, if you are not eating any animal foods, that you eat about 1.8x as much non-heme iron as you would heme iron. Iron-rich foods should also be consumed with a source of vitamin C, which boost absorption (5).
Meeting Your Iron Needs
The RDA for iron is 8 mg for men and post-menopausal women. It is 18 mg for women of childbearing age, who have higher iron needs due to monthly blood losses (6).
If you are following a vegan or vegetarian diet, you want to first try to include more iron-rich foods into your diet before opting for a supplement. Plant-foods high in iron include fortified cereals, beans, peas, or dried fruit. Cooking with cast-iron pots and pans can also help boost iron in your food.
Iron supplements should not be taken without a blood test and a recommendation by a doctor.
Unnecessary supplementation with iron can cause digestive disturbances and block the absorption of other important minerals. If you do take an iron supplement, be sure to avoid taking with foods high in calcium, which can reduce absorption.
Related: Top 10 Iron Supplements
Omega-3 fats are the “essential” fats in the diet, meaning they must come from the food we eat.
There are three omega-3 fats, eicosapentaeoic acid (EPA), docosahexanaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
EPA and DHA, which are found almost exclusively in fish, have been extensively studied for their health benefits. EPA is highly anti-inflammatory, blocking the inflammation pathway in the body. It has also been found to reduce the risk of depression (7). DHA is required for the function of the brain and eyes (8). It is the primary omega-3 found in the brain.
ALA is the omega-3 fat found in plant sources, like chia, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Although ALA is an omega-3 fat, it must first be converted into EPA or DHA to be most beneficial.
The conversion is quite inefficient and can vary significantly between individuals (9). Also, most of the research on the anti-inflammatory benefits of the omega-3 fats has used EPA or DHA, with assumptions being made that ALA is likely beneficial too.
So, although ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA, most people who are not eating fish at all may need a supplement to make sure they are getting enough important omega-3s.
Meeting Your Omega-3 Needs
The RDA for omega-3s per day is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. There is no specific recommendation for each individual type of omega-3.
Most omega-3 supplements range form 250-1000 mg per day. The important thing about supplements is that they should contain both EPA and DHA (10).
Depending on how strict you are with your vegetarian diet, this will determine what type of omega-3 supplement you should choose. Fish oil is obviously made from fish, so those following a vegan diet generally avoid this type.
A better choice for vegans is algal oil, which contains both EPA and DHA, but is made from algae instead of fish.
You may also want to be sure that the capsule is not made from gelatin, but is plant-based instead.
Related: Top 10 Fish Oil Supplements
Related: Top 10 Krill Oil Supplements
Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning it is needed by the body in very small amounts. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important for health.
It used for growth, proper wound healing, a healthy immune system, and to help the body use carbohydrates from food. It is even needed for proper smell and taste (11).
Many plant foods are good sources of zinc, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and nutritional yeast.
The problem is that in many of these foods zinc absorption is inhibited by a plant-compound called phytate. Phytate can be reduced by soaking or sprouting grains or beans, but vegans or vegetarians remain at risk for deficiency (12).
Meeting Your Zinc Needs
The RDA for zinc is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. Since absorption of zinc is so poor from plant-foods, it is recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume 1.5 times the RDA to be sure needs are being met (13).
If you want to take a supplement, zinc usually comes in a few different forms either zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, or zinc citrate.
Each contains varying degrees of zinc, there is no particular form that is recommended over the other. But, be careful with taking a high dose of zinc long-term as it can interfere with the absorption of other minerals such as iron.
Related: Top 10 Zinc Supplements
Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth. It also helps maintain a healthy heart, nervous system, and muscles.
Most vegans do not get enough calcium, since they not consume dairy products, increasing risk of bone fractures (14). If you are eliminating dairy you may want to learn which plant-based foods are high in calcium.
Plant sources of calcium include leafy greens, plant-based milks, and tofu.
Meeting Your Calcium Needs
The RDA for calcium is 1000 mg per day for adults under 50. Research has shown that those who consume less than 525mg of calcium per day are at increased risk for bone fractures (15).
If you are not good about getting in your leafy greens or drinking plant-milk, you may want to consider a supplement.
There are many different forms of calcium available as supplements.
Calcium carbonate is the least expensive and highest in calcium. It is best absorbed with food, whereas calcium citrate does not need food for absorption.
Avoid taking iron supplements with your calcium as they can interfere with absorption.
Also, if you are taking other vitamins that contain calcium, be sure to check the labels so you aren’t getting too much (16).
Related: Top 10 Calcium Supplements
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in hormone production, mood, immune function, and calcium absorption. It is important for maintaining healthy bones. It may also help prevent Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease (17).
Your body can make all the vitamin D you need from the sun. Most foods are actually poor sources of vitamin D. Yet, deficiency is quite common.
It is believed that between 40-60% of the population is deficient in vitamin D, even omnivores. Those who live in colder climates, who spend a lot of time indoors, and people with darker skin are at risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Additionally, as we age, the body gets less efficient at making vitamin D from the sun, so older adults are particularly at risk (18).
Meeting Your Vitamin D Needs
The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU, but there is growing evidence that the RDA needs to be increased because of wide-spread deficiency and possibly an error in the original research used to calculate the RDA (19).
Due to the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency and the fact that most of the foods high in vitamin D are animal foods, vegans and vegetarians may want to consider a supplement.
Ideally, before starting a supplement, you want to get your blood levels tested by a doctor to be sure you are actually deficient. Blood levels should be between 30-50 ng/mL and your doctor may prescribe a mega-dose of the vitamin if you are extremely deficient (20).
There are two types of vitamin D supplements available on the market. Vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 is better absorbed because it more closely resembles the form of vitamin D found in the body. Traditionally, D3 was only sourced from animals, but more recently there have been several companies making vegan D3, a great option for those who want to avoid supplements from animal sources.
Aim to get between 600-1000 IU per day of vitamin D and spend at least 20-30 minutes in the sun to be sure your needs are met.
Related: Top 10 Vitamin D Supplements
Vitamin B12 is important for healthy DNA, the formation of red blood cells, and brain function.
Vegetarian or vegan diets are usually deficient in B12 because it is only found in animal foods bound to protein (21).
It is estimated that between 20-40% of the world’s population have a B12 deficiency, as many people don’t absorb it well, even if they eat enough.
Meeting Your B12 Needs
The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg per day for adults. The ability to absorb B12 decreases as you age and some expert suggest the RDA might be low for many people.
Consider getting a blood test for vitamin B12 levels if you are concerned about your intake (24).
For those following a vegan or vegetarian diet a supplement is recommended to be sure your needs are being met. Supplements range in doses from 25-100 mcg per day. They come in sublingual (under the tongue) or capsule form.
Some people prefer doing a “mega dose” of B12 via injection.
Frequently B12 is added in with a multivitamin, so that is another option if you don’t want to remember to take two pills.
Related: Top 10 Vitamin B12 Supplements
Supplements and Plant-Based Diets
There is little argument that eating more plants is healthy. But, as you can see, plants don’t provide everything you need to thrive.
There are several important nutrients that are not found widely in plants. A vegetarian or vegan multivitamin should be able to cover most of these nutrient needs, so you aren’t stuck taking multiple supplements a day. But, you might need to supplement if you have higher nutritional needs.
Additionally don’t forget that proper dietary planning is still required on a plant-based diet, you want to do your best to try to meet most of your nutrient needs with food.
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