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Supplements and vitamins vegans can take

Vitamin oil capsules piled on a spoon
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Veganism is a plant-based diet that cuts out all animal products, including milk and eggs. Recently, it’s become really popular in the UK, which is why you’re probably used to seeing vegan-friendly products in sandwich shops and on the supermarket shelves.

If you’re thinking about switching to veganism, either because you’re taking part in Veganuary or just because you fancy a change, it’s a good idea to plan what your weekly diet might look like.

It’s possible to get all the nutrients you need by eating a varied and balanced vegan diet, but this can take some getting used to. If you don’t plan your diet properly, you run the risk of missing out on some important nutrients.

Eating only plant-based foods can make it hard to get enough nutrients like iron and vitamin B12. For this reason, you might need to take vitamin supplements when you switch to a vegan diet.

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Supplements and vitamins you may need on a vegan diet

Vitamin B12 supplements

Vitamin B12 is a really important nutrient that’s involved in making new cells and keeping the nervous system healthy. Because it helps us make red blood cells, not getting enough can lead to anaemia.

The problem for vegans is that vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs and milk. This is why you might find it difficult to get enough in your daily diet and why you may be more at risk of developing a B12 deficiency.

The symptoms of a deficiency include extreme tiredness and lack of energy, as well as pins and needles and mouth ulcers - if you think you might have a deficiency, speak to your GP.

The NHS recommends taking supplements of no more than 2 milligrams (mg) of B12 supplements each day.

Other vegan sources of B12

The best way to consume B12 is in your food, however there aren’t many vegan-friendly foods rich in B12, which is why it’s important to take supplements.

Instead, you’ll need to look for vegan-friendly foods that have been fortified with the vitamin – this means B12 has been specifically added to increase nutritional value. Examples of fortified foods include breakfast cereals, soya drinks and yeast extract spreads like Marmite. The pack should be clearly labelled to show that it contains vitamin B12.

Find out more by reading our vitamin B12 food, sources and deficiency blog.

Iron supplements

Iron is a metallic element that helps to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. It’s found in a variety of foods, including red meat and liver.

When you don’t get enough iron you might feel tired, short of breath and lacking in energy – this is because a lack of iron can cause anaemia. If you think you have iron deficiency anaemia you should speak to your GP as they may want to prescribe iron tablets. Find out more about iron deficiency in our blog.

Adults who menstruate need 14.8mg of iron each day. All other adults need only 8.7mg, with the exception of some pregnant women who may need to take a higher dose of iron supplements or increase the iron in their diet, as pregnancy can lead to low iron.

Taking too much iron can be dangerous and can cause unpleasant side effects like constipation, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, so be careful to stick to the recommended daily limit unless told otherwise.

Other vegan sources of iron

Most people associate an iron-rich diet with red meat. The good news is, it can be found in plenty of vegan-friendly foods, including:

  • Pulses e.g. kidney beans, edamame beans, chickpeas
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruits e.g. apricots, prunes, figs
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables e.g. broccoli, spring greens
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

It’s always best to try and get iron through your diet, so if you can, try adding some of these foods to your daily meals.

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Vitamin D supplements

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps keep the bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Between April and September, our bodies can generate vitamin D using sunlight. In the other months of the year, we typically don’t get enough sunlight on our skin to create enough vitamin D. This is why it’s important to get vitamin D into our diets.

If we don’t get enough vitamin D we’re at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency and – in the long-term – bone deformities. You can learn more about the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency in this blog.

Most food-based sources of vitamin D – oily fish, red meat, egg yolks – are not suitable for vegans. If you’re a vegan it’s a good idea to take vitamin D supplements during the winter months, or during any long period where you aren’t able to get sun on your skin.

The NHS recommends that most adults need 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D each day. This is a good amount to take as a supplement.

Other vegan sources of vitamin D

Vitamin D doesn’t naturally occur in vegan-friendly foods, but it is often added to foods. Look out for spreads, breakfast cereals and soya drinks that have been fortified with vitamin D.

Omega 3 fatty acids supplements

Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that are thought to keep the heart healthy and prevent heart attacks and strokes. There are three types: ALA, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are thought to be the most important for heart health. The best source of Omega 3s is oily fish, however they can also be found in plant-based foods.

Heart UK recommends consuming Omega 3s in your diet, rather than taking supplements, but this can be hard for vegans. If you want to take supplements, aim to take one that contains 250-500 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA (combined in one Omega 3 supplement) each day. Vegan Omega 3 supplements are usually made from marine algae.

Other vegan sources of Omega 3 fatty acids

Some good plant-based sources of Omega 3s are:

  • Flaxseed/linseed oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy beans, soy milk and tofu
  • Green, leafy vegetables

You can learn more about good sources of Omega 3s by reading this article: Foods rich with Omega 3 fatty acids.

Iodine supplements

Iodine helps make thyroid hormones and keep the metabolic rate in your body healthy. It can be hard for vegans to get iodine in their diets because it is most often found in fish and shellfish. Iodine is found in some plant foods but it’s not always easy to know how much they contain.

Adults need 140 micrograms (mcg) of iodine each day. The NHS recommends taking no more than 0.5 milligrams (mg) of iodine supplements each day.

Other vegan sources of iodine 

The Vegan Society recommends that a non-seaweed supplement is the best source of iodine for vegans. However, an alternative source is plant-based milk that has been fortified with iodine – to find this, look for “potassium iodide” on the label.

Calcium supplements

Calcium is an essential nutrient with multiple benefits. It keeps the bones and teeth healthy, regulates the heartbeat and helps with clotting. A lack of calcium can cause bone problems, amongst other things.

Calcium is found in a variety of animal products, including milk, cheese and small fish eaten whole (e.g. sardines). Because these aren’t suitable for vegans, you may need to take calcium supplements.

Adults need 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day. The NHS recommends taking no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of calcium supplements each day.

Other vegan sources of calcium

It’s best to consume calcium in your diet rather than as supplements, so you should try to add some calcium-rich plant-based foods into your meals and snacks.

Calcium rich foods to include are:

  • Green leafy vegetables e.g. curly kale, broccoli, cabbage, okra
  • Pulses e.g. kidney beans, chickpeas, edamame beans
  • Sesame seeds and tahini
  • Dried fruit e.g. apricots, prunes, figs
  • Bread (all UK flours contain calcium)
  • Fortified plant milks and drinks

Zinc supplements

Zinc helps to make new cells, process carbohydrate, fat and protein food and heal wounds. It’s found in animal products such as meat, shellfish and dairy foods.

Not getting enough zinc in your diet can lead to a deficiency, which may cause weight loss, loss of appetite and tiredness – learn more here.

The NHS states that adult men need 9.5 milligrams (mg) of zinc each day, while adult women need 7mg.

Other vegan sources of zinc

Zinc can be found in:

  • Wholemeal bread
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Grains and cereal products
  • Beans, lentils and peas
  • Quinoa
  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Fortified breakfast cereal

Selenium supplements

Selenium helps support the immune system and prevents damage to cells and tissues. It’s found in fish, eggs and meat.

Adult men need 75 micrograms (mcg) of selenium each day, while adult women need 60 micrograms (mcg). The NHS recommends taking no more than 350 micrograms (mcg) of selenium supplements each day.

Other vegan sources of selenium

A great source of selenium is brazil nuts.

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The Vegan Eatwell Guide

For more guidance about eating a nutritious vegan diet, check out this simple guide from The Vegan Society. Remember, if you’re having doubts about making the switch or you’d simply like to learn more, you can always contact your GP for advice.