What supplements should vegans take?
While a plant-based diet is by far one of the healthiest (and THE kindest!) options out there, vegans may want some help ensuring they get enough of certain vitamins that are more readily available in animal products.
Today we’re covering ten of those supplements, broken into three categories: for all vegans, for some vegans and for newbie vegans. (Psst… Even though these recommendations are made with a mostly whole foods, vegan diet in mind, omnivores, flexitarians and plant-curious peeps can still learn and get ideas!)
Keep in mind that supplements should be treated with care and chosen in collaboration with a healthcare practitioner. Your body is unique and I can’t tell you exactly what you should/shouldn’t take. I encourage you to work with an integrative doctor (go here for help finding one) to get your blood work and levels tested because that’s the only way to truly know what supplements you should consider. That said, these suggestions are a strong foundation (aka the basics!).
I encourage all plant-based eaters to take a multivitamin as well as B12, D3 and probiotic supplements. These additions to a balanced vegan diet will help cover most of your nutritional bases and keep your beautiful inner terrain in tip top shape.
A high-quality vegan multivitamin will help you cover a lot of nutritional bases in one supplement, which is great if you don’t like swallowing pills (the fewer, the better!) or are likely to forget. That’s not to say a multivitamin is a one-and-done deal—we’ll get into the other stuff I recommend next—but it’s a good way to ease into a supplement routine, especially if you’re just getting started.
There are lots of multivitamin options out there, so look for one that meets your needs. For example, you can find varieties formulated with age, sex, diet, etc. in mind. For example, here’s a once-daily option for women from Garden of Life and one for men over 40 from Pure Encapsulations. If you find a few promising multivitamins but need help choosing, it’s always a good idea to ask your doc for their input.
One thing everyone should look for in a multivitamin is 100 percent of the daily value for most of the vitamins and minerals it includes. Your multivitamin won’t cover absolutely everything, but it’s not really doing its job if it only has a small percentage of what you need on a daily basis (and could be an indication of a low-quality formulation).
Vegan B12 Supplement
Vitamin B12 is crucial for nerve development, anemia prevention, sustainable energy and overall well-being. This vitamin tends to be a big focus for vegans because it’s not readily available in many plant-based foods. But the truth is, people who eat meat are only getting it because the animals they consume eat grass from the soil where B12 is present. And even then, it’s still possible to develop a deficiency because of the low rate at which our bodies absorb B12.
I encourage anyone practicing a plant-based diet to take a B12 supplement at least every other day. Your multivitamin may contain some B12, but check the dosage to be sure it’s at least 100–250 mcg daily to account for the low absorption rate. You’re unlikely to overdo it because B12 is water soluble and has not been deemed harmful in high doses. In fact, many doctors recommend supplementing 1000 mcg daily to ensure you get enough.
The natural and most readily absorbable form of B12 is methylcobalamin (you may also see it labeled as plain cobalamin or cyanocobalamin, but methylcobalamin is preferable). You can choose to take it as a pill, oral spray or sublingual tablet (goes under your tongue). Your body absorbs sprays and sublingual tablets best because they don’t need to be broken down by your digestive system. I like the B12 spray from mykind Organics.
Pro plant-based tip: Vegans can also get B12 from nutritional yeast, a delicious, cheesy topping for pastas, salads and just about any meal for that matter… yum!
Vegan Vitamin D3 Supplement
Vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption, immunity, thyroid health, lung and heart function, cancer prevention (namely breast and prostate cancers), and blood sugar control and diabetes prevention. Food sources of vitamin D are limited for vegans and non-vegans alike, and many people are deficient despite their access to regular sun exposure.
There are two types of vitamin D: D2 and D3. Research shows that our bodies absorb D3 more efficiently, but it’s often derived from animal products (specifically sheep’s lanolin, a wax they secrete from their sebaceous glands). Both Pure Encapsulations and Garden of Life have vegan options.
Twenty-five micrograms (1000 IUs) daily is a good starting point if your vitamin D levels are within the recommended range. Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so taking it with a meal that include a healthy fat source (like avocado or nuts!) may boost absorption.
You may need more D3 if your levels are low, so work with your doctor to determine the right supplemental dose (getting your levels checked one to two times a year is a good idea). Just keep in mind what I said before about vitamin D being fat-soluble, because that does mean it’s possible to overdo it. The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements has set 4000 IUs of vitamin D as the tolerable upper limit for individuals over 9 years old (source).
Vegan Probiotic Supplement
Probiotics help maintain a balance of healthy bacteria in your GI tract. They also help improve digestion, immune function and nutrient absorption. Plus, they support your body’s detox process, help maintain healthy bacteria to prevent yeast infections and UTIs, and even support a happy mood.
You can get probiotics from fermented foods like organic tempeh, organic miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir and kombucha. But since many of us don’t eat these foods daily, it’s a good idea to add a vegan probiotic supplement. Most integrative docs recommend 1 to 10 billion live organisms taken over the course of one day, but check with yours to get a recommended dosage. Luckily, probiotics are hard to overdo and they keep ya regular… perfect poops here we come!
This probiotic from Ortho Molecular doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which is especially convenient when traveling!
Vegan Omega-3 Supplement
Omega-3s are often associated with fish, but you don’t have to eat our water-faring friends to get these essential polyunsaturated fats! They’re also found in flaxseed, hemp seeds, walnuts and chia seeds. Omega-3s are essential because your body can’t make them and they’re crucial for keeping your beautiful heart and brain healthy.
The omega-3s found in plants are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), some of which your body can convert to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) for your heart and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for your nervous system. But you may not be able to get the recommended amount from diet alone, especially if you’re not regularly eating omega-3-rich foods. Rough, scaly skin and dermatitis may be symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency.
Most health professionals recommend 250-500 mg combined DHA and EPA daily for healthy adults. A higher dose may be recommended for certain health conditions, so work with your doc. DHA/EPA supplements are often derived from fish oil, but you can get plant-based varieties made from algae. Here’s an option from Source Naturals!
The supplements in this category (and the next one for newbie vegans) are optional additions to the essential supplements we covered above. They address more specific health challenges and other aspects of wellness you may want extra support for. They may also help fill nutritional gaps for people who aren’t eating the variety or quantity of food necessary to get certain nutrients on a regular basis.
Vegan Iodine Supplement
Your body needs iodine (a naturally occurring mineral found in soil and ocean waters) for healthy thyroid function, which plays a big role in metabolism, energy, heart health and more. Iodine is especially important during pregnancy because it helps with neurological development of fetuses and healthy birth weight. It may also be used as part of the treatment for fibrocystic breast disease. Not getting enough iodine can lead to conditions like goiter, which is an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid (source).
Many people get iodine from fish and dairy (in part due to the iodine feed supplements and iodine-containing sanitizing agents used by the dairy industry). Seaweed is a good plant-based source of iodine, but the contents vary significantly depending on the type—kombu has the most, with up to 2984 mcg per 1-g sheet (source). Fruits and veggies also contain it if they’re grown in iodine-rich soil. And of course… salt! Salt manufacturers have been adding iodine to table salt since the 1920s to reduce the risk for deficiency in areas of the world where iodine is not abundant in the soil (source).
The recommended daily amount of iodine for people 14 years and older is 150 mcg. Certain folks need a bit more, such as pregnant (220 mcg per day) and lactating (290 mcg) women. Most people are unlikely to get too much iodine from food or supplements, but it is possible to go overboard, especially for folks with pre-exising thyroid conditions. Work with your doctor to get your iodine levels tested and determine if you need supplementation (here’s one option from Ortho Molecular Products!)
Vegan Iron Supplement
Iron is essential for blood production, immunity and delivery of oxygen to tissues. Most of our iron can be found in our red blood cells, tucked away in a molecule called hemoglobin, which shuttles oxygen from our lungs to our tissues.
There are two different kinds of iron: Heme iron is present in animal products like red meat and is easier for our bodies to absorb. The iron available in plants is non-heme, so even though it’s possible for anyone to develop a deficiency, vegans and vegetarians should keep an especially close eye on their levels.
Adult men and postmenopausal women should get about 8 mg of iron per day, and adult women should get about 18 mg per day. Luckily, there are lots of vegan-friendly iron superstars to load up on, such as lentils (3.3 mg per ½ cup cooked) and spinach (3.2 mg per ½ cup cooked)—check out my guide to plant-based iron-rich foods here!
Folks with increased iron needs (people who are anemic, pregnant, take iron-depleting medications, etc.) or who don’t absorb it well may choose to take a supplement, like this one from Thorne. I encourage you to talk with your doc about having your Ferritin level tested before you decide to supplement and be careful not to overdo it. Getting too much iron can be bad for your heart. Also keep in mind that the vitamin C found in most fruits and veggies increases iron absorption, so enjoy citrus fruits and bell peppers with your iron-rich dishes or supplements if you take them.
Vegan Calcium Supplement
Calcium helps build strong, healthy bones. It also plays a key role in blood clotting (helps you stop bleeding when you get a cut, for example), muscle contractions and maintaining a healthy heart rhythm.
The dairy industry would like us to think we need to drink cow’s milk on a regular basis to get sufficient calcium. But you can get plenty from a healthy plant-based diet packed with dark green veggies, legumes and fortified nondairy milks. Adult men and women should get about 1000 mg per day and up their intake as they age (1300 mg per day for women 51+ and men 70+).
I blend up this calcium-rich smoothie a couple of times a week to get more than half of my daily value (contains about 517 mg of the good stuff!):
- 1 cup fortified, unsweetened nondairy almond milk
- 2 Tbsp hemp seeds
- ½ cup kale
- ½ cup cucumber
- ½ cup blueberries
- ½ cup banana
A calcium supplement can be helpful if you’re not consistently getting the recommended daily amount or if you have a family history of osteoporosis. Getting too much calcium is rare, but can cause lead to kidney stones and renal insufficiency, constipation and other complications. Most adults should avoid getting more than 2500 mg of calcium per day (source).
Keep in mind that vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption, so you’ll need to make sure you’re taking them in tandem. Here’s a supplement from Garden of Life that includes both!
Vegan Magnesium Supplement
Magnesium is found in every cell of your body and used in over 300 different biochemical reactions, from metabolism to muscle relaxation. Your body needs magnesium to stay on top of its game, fight disease and repair itself. It also supports keeping your blood sugar and heart rate stable—as well as helping you fight stress.
There are lots of yummy plant-based food sources of magnesium, including: avocados, seeds (pumpkin seeds contain a whopping 150 mg per ounce!), nuts, dark leafy greens and, yes, dark chocolate (source)! Most adults should aim to get 300–400 mg of magnesium per day (exact amount depends on age, sex and factors like pregnancy). Insomnia, muscle cramps, high blood pressure and headaches are among the signs that you might not be getting enough (source).
There’s no health risk associated with getting too much magnesium from food because your kidneys dispose of excess magnesium via your urine. However, you can overdo it with supplements so health practitioners recommend taking 300-600 mg supplemental magnesium glycinate before bed (the glycinate version is less likely to cause diarrhea). Here’s one option from Pure Encapsulations.
This recommendation is specifically for my newest plant-based pals!
Vegan Digestive Enzymes
I love my fiber-filled vegan diet, but I remember how much of an adjustment it was for my digestive system at first. Our bodies can handle gradual increases in fiber consumption pretty well on their own. But if you’re not used to eating many powerful plants and decide to adopt a vegan diet (yay you!), you may experience some discomfort at first.
Your salivary glands and pancreas produce digestive enzymes, but you can also take them as a supplement to help break food down into smaller compounds that your body can use. This can really help with digesting extra fiber when you’re new to a plant-powered diet. Then once your amazing body adjusts and you feel more comfortable, you can stop taking them!
Digestive enzyme supplements are also important for people with pancreatic cancer, diseases affecting the pancreas and anything else that gets in the way of normal digestive enzyme production. I like this one from Pure Encapsulations!
How to find the right supplement brand for you
With so many supplement brands out there, it’s not always easy to distinguish the gems from the junk. Now that we’ve covered the “What supplements should vegans take?” question, let’s go over some basic criteria to keep in mind while you’re looking for your perfect vitamin match.
Whole food vitamins are the cream of the supplement crop
I usually opt for whole food vitamins because they have very few (if any) of the unidentifiable additives and lab-grown compounds found in some synthetic varieties. And what do I mean by “whole food” vitamins, exactly? It really is as simple as it sounds! These supplements are made from actual food as opposed to man- or woman-made ingredients. Because the nutrients are delivered in the closest possible form to whole foods, they’re more bioavailable (aka more easily absorbed by your body).
You may need to use professional grade synthetic supplements if you’re taking them for therapeutic purposes. Therapeutic supplementation typically means taking higher doses of a specific nutrient to treat a health condition under supervision from a healthcare provider. Because the whole food vitamins may not be able to provide those especially high doses, high-quality synthetic alternatives can come in handy in those situations.
Stick with professional grade supplements
Not all supplements are created equal. This industry is not always well-regulated, which has lead to major variations in the quality of vitamins available. Some options are filled with additives, colorings, flavorings and allergens. Labels might indicate that the dosage is higher than it actually is, and the formulation may not be well absorbed by your body, rendering it somewhat if not completely ineffective.
Professional grade supplements are:
- Made from high-quality ingredients
- Contain the most bioavailable form of the nutrients
- Typically free of allergens, binders, fillers, wheat, yeast, gluten, corn, starch, sugar, preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors and dairy
- Contain the research-backed recommended dosage of vitamins and minerals
- Free of microbes, pollutants, pesticides and heavy metals
- May only be available from your doctor (though I’m seeing them show up online more and more!)
It’s also a good idea to check if the brand you’re considering is certified compliant with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) from NSF (National Sanitation Foundation). The NSF label assures you that the product has undergone testing by one of the most respected independent certification organizations.
My favorite supplement brands
These are my favorite brands because they all offer a wide variety of high-quality vegan supplements (both whole food and synthetic varieties depending on what you need):
These are my favorite professional grade brands:
These are also great brands and usually easy to find at your local health food store:
Now it’s time to create your very own supplement routine
I hope this info not only answers the “What supplements should vegans take?” question, but also empowers you to be the CEO of your health, sweetheart! I know it can be overwhelming to navigate this stuff, but remember that you’re in the driver’s seat. You get to ask the questions and decide what to do with the answers. You get to choose what goes in your body. You get to decide what’s best for you—that’s an incredible privilege and I know in my bones that you’re up to the task!
When it comes to supplements, don’t feel like you have to go from zero to 100 all at once (well, maybe not 100… that’s too many, even for a supplement fan like me!)—just start by adding a couple of essential vitamins and go from there. Little by little, you’ll find the combination that works best for you and your bod.
And as I mentioned, it’s a good idea to work with a knowledgeable and holistic health practitioner to figure out what your supplement routine should include. If you need help finding someone, check out this site. Get curious, ask questions and enjoy the process!
Your turn: What supplements do you swear by and what brands do you love? I want to hear what’s in your vitamin cabinet!
Peace and vegan vitamins,
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