Quick Health Scoop
- Vegan diets tend to be higher in dietary fiber and phytochemicals, plus a host of other healthy nutrients,2 but cutting out animal-derived foods can still leave some pretty large nutrient gaps
- Vitamin B12 is only reliably found in foods derived from animals3
- Vegans and vegetarians need to pay special attention to make sure they get enough Vitamin D3
- Plant-based foods contain Calcium, but some also inhibit how well Calcium is absorbed in the body3
- Plant-based diets tend to be low in Iodine1
- The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of Iron for vegans and vegetarians may be 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians3
- Vegans and vegetarians tend to consume enough ALA, however, the health-promoting activity of Omega-3s are found in EPA and DHA
Going vegan or vegetarian can feel like a big life change. Whether it’s from the cheese on a Friday night pizza or eggs in a favorite salad dressing, animal-based foods are so ingrained in American diets, it can seem impossible to avoid them altogether. Especially when there are still myths circulating that vegetarians will be missing vitamins from their diet or that there are fewer food options that provide the essential vitamins for vegans and vegetarians.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, plant-based diets are a healthy and environmentally sustainable way to get all the nutrients you need at every life stage and may even provide unique health benefits.1 Vegan diets tend to be higher in dietary fiber and phytochemicals, plus a host of healthy nutrients such as Magnesium, Folic Acid, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E, and low in saturated fats and cholesterol.2 That said, cutting out animal-derived foods can leave some pretty large nutrient gaps that are important to pay attention to if you’re going vegan or vegetarian. Most of these nutrient gaps are easily addressed by swapping to other food sources—you just need to know where to look.
Understanding Nutrient Gaps and the Vitamins Vegans and Vegetarians Need
Vegans and vegetarians need all the same vitamins and minerals everybody else does. But because their diet restricts eating certain foods, they’re at a higher risk of missing out on certain key nutrients.3 This is especially true with Vitamin B12, which is predominantly found in foods from animals, but is also true for Calcium and Vitamin D, and possibly true for Iodine, Iron, and Zinc.3
These nutrients are classified as “essential” because the body needs them but cannot make them on its own. Your body relies on you to provide the nutrients it needs to survive and help you thrive. If you’re already eating a plant-based diet or if you’re thinking about changing to one, here are 7 key nutrients to consider when it comes to the vitamins vegans and vegetarians need or should take.
Learn More: Plant-Based Protein Sources for Vegans
1. Boost Vitamin B12 for Vegetarians and Vegans
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient the body needs for many functions, including converting food into cellular energy, supporting healthy nerve and blood cells, and making DNA.4 But Vitamin B12 is only reliably found in foods derived from animals.3 So, if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you are at a higher risk for a Vitamin B12 deficiency.3
Only a few plant-sourced foods such as certain fermented beans, vegetables, edible algae, and mushrooms may contain substantial amounts of Vitamin B12.3 Other vegan sources such as tempeh, nori, spirulina, algae, and unfortified nutritional yeast may also contain some Vitamin B12—but aren’t reliable or practical sources of this important vitamin vegans or vegetarians need.1
So, if you’re a vegan, you need to find a way of regularly consuming Vitamin B12, whether that’s from fortified foods or supplements. The same goes for vegetarians. While Vitamin B12 can be found in milk and eggs, they don’t provide enough of it. For example, 1 cup of milk and one egg combined only provide about 2/3 of what’s recommended to consume each day.1 Thankfully, Vitamin B12 is easily found in supplement form either as a standalone Vitamin B12, in a multivitamin, or a B Complex. It can also be found in fortified foods such as breads and cereals. You’ll just have to make it a point to regularly consume Vitamin B12 somehow—so you don’t become deficient in this critical nutrient.
2. Deliver on Vitamin D for Vegans and Dairy-Free Vegetarians
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps support bone, muscle, teeth, and immune health. And while the body can make Vitamin D when the skin is exposed to the sun, the amount it makes varies widely.1
That’s because many factors influence just how much Vitamin D the body makes while we’re catching those rays, many of which are actually smart sun-protecting guidelines.1 Everything from the time of day to the time of year, to air pollution, skin pigmentation, sunscreen usage, how much clothing is covering your skin, and age—can all have a big impact on how much of this nutrient your body actually gets from the sun.1
When it comes to diet, fish and dairy products are the primary ways to consume Vitamin D, so vegans and vegetarians need to pay special attention to this vitamin.3 Some fortified foods can contribute to your daily Vitamin D needs; however, their availability and how much they provide can vary.
Some food options fortified with Vitamin D are cow’s milk, some non-dairy milks (almond milk, soymilk, etc.), fruit juices, and breakfast cereals.1 Eggs may provide some Vitamin D as well, and mushrooms (if they’re treated with a UV light while growing) can prove to be significant sources of Vitamin D.1
If sun exposure and fortified foods are not sufficient to meet your Vitamin D requirements, then you could take a Vitamin D supplement. It’s important to note that Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so if you do take it as a supplement, be sure to consume it with a meal that contains some fat such as nuts, seeds, or avocados. It is also a good idea to get your Vitamin D levels checked; you can request this from your doctor when you go in for your yearly physical.
3. Count Your Calcium, Especially if You Don’t Consume Dairy
Calcium is an essential mineral for bone health and is also a concern for vegans and vegetarians who don’t consume dairy, particularly for women as they age.3 Even among the general US population, most of whom do consume dairy, Calcium is still considered a “shortfall” nutrient because about 40% of the American population do not meet their Calcium needs from foods.5
Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) is the main source of Calcium in American diets. Fortified foods can help too, although their availability varies.3 Some plant-based foods offer a good source of Calcium. Foods in the kale family (broccoli, cabbage, boy choy, etc.) provide Calcium as bioavailable as the Calcium found in milk.3
Other plant-based foods contain Calcium, but some also inhibit how well Calcium is absorbed in the body.3 For example, both spinach and rhubarb contain a lot of Calcium but also contain high amounts of “oxalic acid,” which hinders how easily your body can use it.3 This is how “bioavailable” that Calcium is, or the degree to which a nutrient can be made available, retained, and used by the body. “Phytic acid” can also inhibit Calcium absorption, but to a lesser extent.3 It’s found in foods such as whole grains, legumes, and cereal.3 Other plant foods offer only a moderate amount of Calcium, foods such as white beans, figs, oranges, and almonds.3
This is just another good reminder to keep Calcium on your watch list if you’re cutting back on dairy or cutting it out entirely. You can always speak to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to see which foods are a good Calcium source for you, and there are also Calcium supplements to lend a helping hand. If you opt to take a Calcium supplement, be sure it contains Vitamin D, which can help with its absorption.
4. Vegans May Need to Up Their Iodine
Some data suggest vegans may be at risk of not consuming enough Iodine as well.3 Iodine is an essential mineral that the body needs to make thyroid hormones.6 Overall, the US population does fine with its Iodine intake and isn’t considered to be insufficient.3 But certain populations such as pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and vegans may be somewhat at risk for this nutrient gap—so it’s worth mentioning here.3
This is simply because plant-based diets tend to be low in Iodine.1 A good source of Iodine for vegans is iodized salt, so if you use that type of salt, you’re probably fine. Sea vegetables, such as seaweed, are another tasty vegan source of Iodine. But other common seasonings such as sea salt, kosher salt, and tamari are typically not iodized.1 Processed foods also don’t use iodized salt.
5. Ironing Out Iron Needs for Vegetarians and Vegans
There are two types of Iron found in food: heme and nonheme. Heme Iron is the type found in animal foods, whereas nonheme is the type of Iron found in plants. Heme Iron is absorbed more efficiently than nonheme Iron, which is why the Iron RDA for vegans and vegetarians may be 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.3 So, while vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike may all be consuming the same amount of Iron—they’re not all absorbing the same amount.3
That said, a meatless diet doesn’t seem to be associated with an increased risk of an iron deficiency, as long as it includes adequate plant-based Iron sources such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables.3 Another good thing to note if you’re concerned about your Iron intake, is that some dietary factors than can either help or hurt your Iron absorption. However, here too it comes down to “bioavailability.”
For example, Vitamin C can help enhance Iron absorption.3 Whereas certain acids found in coffee, black tea, and herbal tea may inhibit Iron absorption—although if you’re already consuming enough Vitamin C it can help minimize this effect.3 While whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are considered good sources of Iron on their own—they can inhibit Iron absorption. Consuming foods high in Vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, can reduce this effect. Other foods that inhibit Iron absorption include tofu, soymilk, edamame, and Calcium.3 So, if you take a multivitamin with Iron, take your Calcium supplement separately at a different meal.
Fun fact: Cooking your food in Cast Iron Cookware can increase its Iron content!7
6. Zipping up Zinc Needs for Vegans and Vegetarians
Zinc is an essential mineral found in cells throughout the body to help make proteins, DNA, and support the immune system.8 Zinc is found in a wide variety of foods, many of which are animal-based. Which is why it’s another key nutrient to note when it comes to vegan and vegetarian diets.
While veggie-friendly Zinc sources such as soy products, nuts, legumes, beans, lentils, and whole grains provide some of this mineral—they also contain a certain acid that inhibits how well Zinc is absorbed into the body.3 Certain cooking techniques can help your body better absorb Zinc, such as soaking and sprouting beans, grains, nuts, and seeds.1 And like Iron, consuming citrus fruits along with these foods can enhance the absorption of Zinc to some extent.1
7. Upping Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegans and Vegetarians
Omega-3 fatty acids are also considered essential nutrients and play many important roles in the body, specifically in the heart, brain, and eyes. There are three main types of Omega-3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is found mainly in plant oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood but also found in algae.
Fun fish fact: The reason fish and other seafood offer Omega-3s is because those fish eat algae!
While vegetarians consume fewer quantities of EPA and DHA than non-vegetarians, vegans consume basically none.1 Vegans and vegetarians tend to consume enough ALA, however, the health-promoting activity of Omega-3s are found in EPA and DHA. There are many plants (specifically seeds such as flax, chia, canola, walnuts, and hemp) that are all good sources of ALA.1
While ALA is a plant-based source of Omega-3s, ALA must be converted into EPA and then into DHA in the body, but this conversion is very inefficient.1 This is why some experts suggest vegans or vegetarians look to ingest Omega-3 fortified foods, drinks, dietary supplements, or a combination of all three to ensure they’re getting enough of this critical heart, brain, and eye support nutrient.9
A Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Could Still Be Missing Key Nutrients
In general, a diverse and well-balanced diet filled with whole grains, proteins, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables should provide you with all the nutrients you need. That said, the data shows most Americans don’t consume enough vitamins and minerals from their food alone. And as a vegan or vegetarian, it’s worth paying special attention to particular nutrients such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iodine, Iron, Zinc, and EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids. There are plenty of plant-based sources for most of these nutrients, even if they aren’t the first ones that come to mind.
Adding a multivitamin is a simple and easy way to help ensure you’re covering all of your nutritional bases too, especially for nutrients such as Vitamin B12, Calcium, and EPA + DHA Omega 3 fatty acids. Plus, there are plenty of delicious new ways to incorporate plant-based food rich in these nutrients into your diet. Look at it as an excuse to get adventurous and try out a few new recipes! You never know which new tasty foods you’ll find.
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
- Melina MS, et al. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016; 116(12): 1970–1980. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(16)31192-3/fulltext
- Winston CJ. “Health effects of vegan diets.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 89(5):1627S–1633. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/89/5/1627S/4596952
- Oregon State University. “Subpopulations at Risk for Micronutrient Inadequacy or Deficiency: Those with Restrictive Diets.” 2018. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrient-inadequacies/subpopulations-at-risk#restrictive-diets
- National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Consumers.” 2020. Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/
- Blumberg, J. B., et al. "Impact of Frequency of Multi-Vitamin/Multi-Mineral Supplement Intake on Nutritional Adequacy and Nutrient Deficiencies in U.S. Adults." Nutrients. 2017; 9(8): 849. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28792457/
- National Institutes of Health. “Iodine Fact Sheet for Consumers.” 2020. Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Iodine-Consumer.pdf
- Alves C, et al. “Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review.” PLoS One. 2019; 14(9): e0221094. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6719866/
- National Institutes of Health. “Zinc Fact Sheet for Consumers.” 2019. Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer.pdf
- Mayo Clinic. “Vegetarian diet: How to get the best nutrition.” 2020. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Accessed on: December 29, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446