Best vegan supplements
Are supplements needed for a healthy, balanced vegan diet? As with any way of eating, it is always best to obtain key nutrients through food rather than laboratory-made supplements. Nutrients in their natural ‘food matrix’ come wrapped up with other substances that can aid their absorption in the body and boost their effectiveness. In addition, there is little risk of overdosing any one nutrient in the context of a varied, carefully-planned diet.
For vegans, a diet full of fresh vegetables can provide a host of antioxidants and other health-giving plant compounds that many omnivorous people miss out on. However, there are some key nutrients needed by the human body that are more difficult to source in a completely plant-based diet. In addition, life stages such as childhood, adolescence and pregnancy may bring increased nutritional needs, so it is advisable to speak to your doctor or a nutritional therapy practitioner about suitable supplements.
Here we take a look at the most important supplements to consider in the context of a plant-based diet:
With vitamin B12 being so crucial to the nervous system and other body systems, this is a nutrient to be taken seriously. Many people do not realise they have low B12 levels – our stores of B12 can take a couple of years to run down and symptoms of depletion or deficiency can be hard to distinguish from other conditions that affect the nervous system and energy levels. There is some controversy about the need for vegans to take a vitamin B12 supplement, but most nutritionists agree that animal foods are the only bioavailable source of this important nutrient and even meat-eaters can have difficulty releasing B12 from food. It makes sense for vegans to have their vitamin B12 levels checked and to supplement accordingly with a bioavailable source of vitamin B12 such as hydroxocobalamin.
With vitamin D synthesized in the skin when exposed to sunshine, many people in Northern climates find their vitamin D levels are lower than they should be for optimal health. Fatty fish and other animal-fat-based foods can make up the shortfall when sunshine is lacking. Plant sources of vitamin D contain a form – D2 – that needs to be converted by the body into the bioavailable D3. As vegan-friendly vitamin D3 supplements are widely available, these provide a good option for keeping vitamin D levels in the healthy range. Having your blood levels of vitamin D checked in Autumn will allow you to adjust supplement dosage accordingly. Ask your doctor or nutritionist about whether you should also take a vitamin K supplement to support vitamin D usage in the body.
Vitamin A is crucial to the correct functioning of the immune system and works in synergy with vitamin D. It is also important for the health of the eyes. A vegan diet can provide a plentiful source of the vitamin A precursor, beta carotene, but the conversion rate within the body can be low and unreliable. There are no plant sources of the bioavailable form of vitamin A – retinyl esters, retinol or retinal – and even omnivores can struggle to get enough vitamin A in their diet. Supplemental vitamin A, taken with a fat-based food, is therefore a sensible strategy. A multivitamin and mineral product will usually provide vitamin A in the bioavailable retinoid format. Note that pregnant women or those planning to become pregnant should take care with supplementing vitamin A – prenatal vitamin formulas are preferable in this group.
Creatine is an amino acid involved in muscle health and energy levels. The body can make some creatine but dietary intake is recommended. With creatine occurring only in animal foods, total creatine levels can be lower in vegetarians and vegans. Studies suggest that supplementation may improve cognitive and muscle function.
Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, found mostly in seafood, are anti-inflammatory and are important for cell membranes, the nervous system and cardiovascular health. Non-animal foods provide ALA, which is converted within the body to EPA and DHA, but the conversion is unreliable, varying between individuals. With fish oils out of the question in a plant-based diet, a good option for Omega-3 is a supplement containing algae or algal oil.
Bakaloudi, D.R., et al., 2021. Intake and adequacy of the vegan diet. A systematic review of the evidence. Clinical Nutrition, 40(5), pp.3503–3521.
Craddock, J.C., et al., 2017. Algal supplementation of vegetarian eating patterns improves plasma and serum docosahexaenoic acid concentrations and omega-3 indices: a systematic literature review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 30(6), pp.693–699.
Dankers, W., et al., 2016. Vitamin D in Autoimmunity: Molecular Mechanisms and Therapeutic Potential. Frontiers in immunology, 7, p.697.
Menal-Puey, S., et al., 2018. Developing a Food Exchange System for Meal Planning in Vegan Children and Adolescents. Nutrients, 11(1), p.43.
Rizzo, G., et al., 2016. Vitamin B12 among Vegetarians: Status, Assessment and Supplementation. Nutrients, 8(12).