Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Yes, most vegans would benefit from taking supplements. This is to meet daily nutritional requirements. Supplements to consider include, protein powder, BCAA's, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, omega 3, iron, calcium and zinc. The reason for this is because plant based diets are often deficient in these nutrients.
Protein is a vital macronutrient which helps the body grow and repair. Reaching daily protein requirements is often not achieved when following a plant based diet (1). This is because there is not an abundance of plant food sources high in protein. In contrast to the high content of animal proteins, such as red meat, poultry and eggs. However, vegan protein powders are an easy way for those on a plant based diet to hit their protein requirements. Additionally, plant based protein supplements contain other nutrients often lacking in plant based diets. For example, hemp protein powder is rich in magnesium, fibre, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and iron (2).
It is important to remember that any diet can be lacking in certain nutrients, not just a plant based diet. This is why it is so important to keep track of what you are eating to help ensure you have a balanced diet.
Those leading a vegan diet need to be mindful of their protein intake. Protein is a macronutrient that our body needs to grow and restore our cells. It is used to aid the growth of hair, nails, muscles, skin, bone and organs (3).
Protein powder is a great way to increase your protein intake and ensure you get additional vitamins often missing in plant based diets. There are a wide variety of vegan protein powders. The nutritional profile of these supplements can vary greatly, this means reading the labelling is very important. This will allow you to decide which supplement will best complement your diet and top up any vitamin or nutrient deficiencies.
Lots of people worry vegan protein powders are not able to match the nutritional values of traditional whey protein powders. However, studies have found vegan protein supplements to possess protein characteristics which closely reflect the typical characteristics of animal-based proteins (4). When possible, it is advised to aim use a complete protein such as vegan pea isolate combined with a food high in methionine to make up for its low methionine content. Or a blended vegan protein powder. A blended protein powder in one made up of at least of two plant-based proteins. The reason blended protein powders are used is because on their own most plant-based protein powders are an incomplete protein, but when blended they will give you a complete protein source (5, 6).
Whilst vegan protein powder is a great way to supplement your diet it is important to remember protein powder should not be used instead of food. But as a supplement. Protein can be found in a variety of vegan friendly foods including soy, hempseed, tofu, lentils and beans.
We tend to think of protein powder being consumed as a protein shake. However, it can be added into your diet in a number of ways. Such as smoothies, pancakes, waffles and porridge. Other ways to incorporate vegan protein supplements include stirring it into peanut butter or yoghurts. And even baking brownies, cookies or muffins mixed with protein powder.
When taking protein powder important to read the labelling to know how much protein you are taking with each serving. And how this assists you with hitting your daily protein goals. Daily protein requirements will vary between individuals. It is determined by factors such as your age, weight and exercise programme (7). On average, most people should aim to get 20 to 40 grams of protein per meal. Protein requirements for those with goals of increased muscle mass or athletic performance will be higher.
Vitamin B12 plays an important part in our bodies. The roles vitamin B12 assists with includes the support of neuronal health, protein metabolism and the transportation of red blood cells (8, 9). Further to this vitamin B12 supports your body with irons absorption, strengthening bones and heart health (10). Studies have shown if the consumption of animal foods is very low or absent, the introduction of the vitamin B12 is essential, either through a vitamin B12 supplement or fortified foods (9).
But How Much Vitamin B12 Do Vegans Need?
This will vary between individuals. The daily recommendation for adults is to aim for 2.4 micrograms a day, with this figure being slightly higher in pregnant women at 2.6 micrograms. For breastfeeding women this amount increases slightly to 2.8 micrograms (11). Older people find it more difficult to absorb enough B12 regardless of their diet. Once over 51 years old, it is recommended to monitor B12 levels and take supplementation if necessary. B12 levels can also be topped up through fortified foods (12).
There is an ongoing debate as to whether plant foods containing naturally forming B12 can be absorbed and become of active use within human bodies (13). Until more is known it is recommended those following a vegan diet take a vitamin B12 supplement or consume fortified foods such as cereals.
Vitamin D is normally produced under the skin with the intake of sun. It is used within our bodies to support the gut metabolise calcium and phosphorus (14). Sadly, there are very few foods that contain Vitamin D and often even food fortified with Vitamin D can be lower than the levels needed (15). Regardless of whether someone is following an omnivore or vegan diet they can be lacking in Vitamin D absorption.
Why Is A Lack Of Vitamin D Absorption A Concern?
Studies have shown vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets in children. This will precipitate and exacerbate osteopenia, osteoporosis, and fractures in adults. Vitamin D deficiency has also been associated with an increased risk of getting common cancers (15).
What Can Be Done?
Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, red meat, egg yolks and fortified food such as breakfast cereals. Obviously, most of these animal proteins are out of the question for those following a vegan diet. However, there are some things you can do to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D. You can ensure you are exposing your skin to the sun, this will produce vitamin D naturally. You can also add cereals fortified with vitamin D to your diet. And finally you can take vitamin D supplementation. This can be taken either through a vegan protein powder which contains vitamin D or through a tablet.
A lack of iodine in your diet can show through symptoms such as tingling hands and feet, forgetfulness, dry skin and even depression (16). Studies have shown some vegetarian and vegan diets are at risk of not meeting daily recommendations of iodine. And in some cases people following a plant based diet have up to 50% less iodine in their blood stream (17).
Vegan diets are often lower in iodine due to seafood and dairy products being two of the best sources of iodine. This can be overcome by adding iodised salt or seaweed to your diet. Interestingly, the level of iodine found in plant foods is dependant on location. This is because of the soil the plant foods are grown in. Food grown closer to the sea have higher levels of iodine.
If you are following a vegan diet and don’t want to add seaweed of adding iodised salt to your diet it is advised to taken an iodine supplement to increase your iodine levels.
Omega 3 fatty acids can be categorised into two groups. Firstly, there is alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA) which is the only essential omega -3 fatty acid which can only be obtained through diet.
The other category consists of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are long chain omega-3 fatty acids. The reason they are considered non-essential is because our body can make them from ALA.
Omega 3 is used by our bodies to support cognitive functions and brain development. It can also reduce the risk of inflammation, depression and cancer (18, 19).
Plants which contain ALA include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans. These foods are all great additions to vegan diets. EPA and DHA can be found in animal products and oily fish. Foods rich in both EPA and DHA include salmon, mackerel and oysters. Whilst vegetarians and vegans will get the essential omega-3 ALA which can theoretically maintain the required amounts of EPA and DHA needed. In practice studies have shown this not to be the case. The reason for this is the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA has been shown to be very low (20, 21). Experts go on to suggest a supplement of 200-300 mg/day of DHA and EPA is needed(19).
Iron is an important nutrient used to make red blood cells, DNA and to carry oxygen around the body. It also supports the energy supply and too little iron can lead to anaemia, which typically displays as a lack of energy and fatigue. This can also result in a lowered immune system (22).
There are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is the iron source that is found within animal produce such as red meats, poultry and seafood. Non-heme is iron that comes from plants such as beans, nuts, lentils and spinach.
The problem which arises for those following a vegan diet is, it is easier for the body to absorb heme than non-heme iron. Those with low iron levels should aim to actively increase their consumption of iron rich foods and iron fortified foods. Interestingly, iron absorption is assisted by both vitamin B12 and vitamin C.
It is recommended to only take iron supplements if you are certain your body is lacking in iron as high iron levels can be harmful (23). The best way to check your iron levels is through a blood test by a medical professional.
Calcium is needed to strengthen the bones and teeth. Good vegan sources of calcium include, kale, rocket lettuce, broccoli and chickpeas.
Studies have shown those leading vegan lifestyles are at a higher risk of fractures because of their considerably lower mean calcium intake (24). This is why experts advise vegan’s take a supplement in calcium if they are unable to meet the daily recommendations through their diet alone.
Studies have shown zinc is essential for the body’s metabolism, reproductive system and central nervous system (25). Foods rich in zinc include, grains, nuts, seed and tofu.
A problem often seen in plant based diet's is some of the food consumed contains phytate. This prevents the body from correctly absorbing zinc (26). This means vegans often suffer from low zinc levels. This can be easily rectified through taking supplementation in the form of zinc tablets or a protein powder infused with zinc.
Yes, in most case vegans would benefit from adding supplements to their diet. The essential nutrients you need to be thinking carefully about are: protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, omega-3, iron, calcium and zinc. All the nutrients mentioned play an important role in maintaining a healthy body and not hitting the required levels can cause health complications. If you have any concerns about your levels of any of these nutrients you should speak to a medical professional.
Vegan protein powders and other dietary supplements are a great addition to any plant based diet. But, it is important to try and get all the nutrients you can from plant based foods. And remember a supplement is what the name suggests. A supplement to your diet. If you are not sure how to get the maximum nutrition from a vegan diet it is recommended you consult with a nutritionist or dietician.