A well planned and balanced plant-based or vegan diet can provide most of the essential nutrients you need. However supplements are advised for some essential nutrients and there are some nutrients that deserve particular attention to ensure you get enough of from your diet or from a supplement.
What nutrients do Vegans lack?
Vitamin B12 is found in foods of animal origin. Fortified foods and supplements are the only reliable sources of this vitamin for those on vegan diets. Deficiency of Vitamin B12 can lead to anemia and damage to the nervous system. Check out our blog on potential signs of low Vitamin B12.
Fortified foods such as nutritional yeast flakes, yeast extract, breakfast cereals and some milk alternative drinks and spreads are a great way to get some Vitamin B12 in your diet. However, a Vitamin B12 supplement is advised if you’re following a vegan diet.
A Vitamin D supplement is generally advised whatever diet you follow and Vegan Vitamin D3 supplements are made from lichen.
We get most of our Vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin. Having a lunchtime walk outside is a great way to top up your Vitamin D levels in the summer months when the sun is at the correct wave-length in the UK for our body to make Vitamin D. For potential signs of Vitamin D deficiency read our blog 'Why Vitamin D is so important'.
There are few dietary sources of Vitamin D, with mushrooms and fortified foods being the only vegan sources. Foods often fortified with Vitamin D include breakfast cereals, spreads and plant alternatives to milk and yoghurt.
Vitamin D is vital for muscles and the immune system to function normally. It also helps maintain healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D is needed for your body to absorb Calcium from foods. A severe deficiency of Vitamin D can weaken your bones and muscles and the NHS recommend adults supplement with Vitamin D.
Important vitamins for vegans
Iodine is required for making thyroid hormones, which are important for metabolism and growth. A small study conducted in America found urinary Iodine levels in vegans were about half the Iodine levels in vegetarians, while a survey in Norway found 86% of vegans had inadequate Iodine intakes.
The main dietary sources of Iodine are milk, dairy and fish. If you’re following a vegan diet, then including foods fortified with Iodine or taking a supplement will help ensure you get adequate Iodine. An increasing number of plant milk alternative drinks are now fortified with Iodine so it’s useful to opt for these.
Intakes of Selenium (a mineral) is often found to be low in UK diets, including vegan diets. Around half of women and a quarter of men aged 20-59 years have low Selenium intakes.
Selenium is important for a variety of roles in the body including normal thyroid function, sperm production, supporting the immune system and maintaining healthy hair and nails.
Useful vegan foods containing Selenium to include in your diet are Brazil nuts, bread, cashews, sunflower seeds, brown rice, chickpeas and mushrooms.
Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for heart health, brain function and eye health. The best source of these are oily fish. However, there are some plant sources of the short-chain omega-3s which the body can convert (albeit inefficiently) into the beneficial long-chain omega-3s.
Try to include walnuts, hemp, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds in a vegan diet and use rapeseed oil in cooking as these provide plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Calcium has many important roles in the body, including regulating muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and it’s essential for nerve transmission, and blood clotting. Along with Vitamin D3 it’s also vital for strong bones and teeth. A recent study suggested that the lower average Calcium intakes among vegans may increase their risk of bone fracture.
Good vegan foods providing Calcium include: firm tofu that is set with Calcium, Calcium fortified plant-based drinks and yoghurts, sesame seeds and tahini, almonds, white bread (in the UK, this is fortified with Calcium and other nutrients), wholemeal bread and kale.
Try this Baked Chilli Tofu with Kale & Noodles recipe
Iron is important for red blood cell production and a deficiency can lead to anaemia. It is thought that vegetarians and vegans could be at a higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to some studies showing they have lower Iron stores (Pawlak, 2018).
A variety of plant foods provide Iron, and eating these foods along with Vitamin C can help the body absorb the Iron. Avoiding tea and coffee with a meal can also help increase the amount of Iron your body absorbs from plant foods, as these drinks contain tannins which reduce Iron absorption. Check out our blog "Why is Iron so important".
Useful vegan foods providing Iron include: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, leafy green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals and bread made with fortified flour.
Zinc has an important role in growth, healthy hair and nails, normal vision, fertility, brain function and immunity. The body doesn’t store Zinc, so a daily supply is needed from the diet or a supplement.
Vegan foods which provide Zinc include: lentils, chickpeas, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, cashews, sunflower seeds, quinoa, couscous, wholemeal bread and wholewheat pasta, tofu, and breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast that are fortified with Zinc.
The vegan version of the Government’s Eatwell guide has useful advice on how to get all the nutrients you need without animal products.
Including a variety of plant foods will help provide important nutrients for your body to function well and for you to feel healthy. A Vitamin D and Vitamin B12 supplement is generally advised for all vegans and particular attention should be given to ensuring adequate Iodine, Selenium and Omega-3. Depending on your individual needs and diet, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc are also key nutrients to consider when following a vegan diet.
Discover our range of vegan supplements
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Brantsaeter AL et al (2018) Inadequate iodine intake in population groups defined by age, life stage and vegetarian dietary practice in a Norwegian convenience sample. Nutrients 10(2): 230.
Derbyshire E (2018) Micronutrient intakes of British adults across mid-life: a secondary analysis of the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Frontiers in Nutrition 5(55)
Leung AM et al (2011) Iodine status and thyroid function of Boston-area vegetarians and vegans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 96(8) E1303-7.
NHS (2020) Vitamin D. Available: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/
Pawlak, Berger and Hines (2018) Iron Status of Vegetarian Adults: A Review of Literature.
The Vegan Society (2020) Vegan Eatwell Guide.