Introductory note: On the one hand, many people blow huge amounts of money on useless and overpriced supplements. But on the other hand, well-chosen supplements can be an inexpensive and affordable way to avoid nutrient deficiencies and to safeguard your health. In creating this page, I’ve spent hours and hours combing Amazon.com to find the products of special interest to vegans that deliver the greatest bang for the buck. These are exactly the products I buy for myself.— Erik Marcus, Vegan.com publisher.
Vegans and omnivores alike should be on guard against nutrient deficiencies. For vegans, a well-planned diet can go a long way toward avoiding the most common pitfalls. That means plenty of vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit—as well as a small amount of nuts or seeds each day. But even with all this taken care of, some vegans will fall short on a few key nutrients, especially B12, Vitamin D, calcium, protein, and zinc.
This guide brings together key information about supplements that are of special interest to vegans.
If you research Vitamin B12 online, you will likely encounter a massive cloud of potentially dangerous misinformation. Here is what you need to know:
The only vegan foods that reliably contain significant amounts of B12 are those that have been fortified with lab-cultured B12. And because people vary greatly in their ability to absorb B12, it’s quite possible to be low or deficient even if you consume 100 percent of the U.S. RDA every day. We therefore recommend that everyone get their blood tested occasionally, and adjust their supplement regimen if B12 levels fall below 500 pg/mL. Some people, particularly people over age 60, absorb B12 so poorly that regular B12 injections are prudent.
B12 deficiencies cause a variety of health problems, including potentially irreversible nerve damage that can occur before symptoms are noticed. The easiest way for most people to avoid a deficiency is to take a B12 supplement containing at least 1000 micrograms of B12 two or three times a week. What you want are either lozenges or tablets that are labeled “sublingual.” Let the lozenge or tablet sit under your tongue to dissolve—the B12 will be absorbed by your mouth’s capillaries more efficiently than if you swallowed the dose. While side effects are extremely rare, consult your physician before taking more than about 7,000 micrograms of B12 per week.
There are two different B12 molecules used by the supplement industry: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. Some people are adamant that methylcobalamin is best, but clinical evidence currently leans toward cyanocobalamin being the better choice (although either molecule will probably be fine). We recommend either NOW Foods B-12 Lozenges, since they offer the biggest bang for the buck in terms of cyanocobalamin dosage and number of tablets. Most vegans can cover their B12 needs by taking one dose every two to three days.
The good news for vegans is that most brands of soy or almond milk contain more calcium than cows’ milk—of course you’ll want to check the label to confirm your favorite brand packs a sufficient dose of calcium. Drinking these products daily and regularly eating tofu that lists calcium sulfate in its ingredients can go a long way towards ensuring adequate calcium intake. Kale is another excellent source of calcium, and it’s packed with other important nutrients too. Beans vary widely in the amount of calcium they contain, with soybeans and white beans offering the most.
If you don’t consume much calcium-rich vegan milk, beans, greens, or tofu, it can be hard to meet the US RDA of 1000 milligrams per day. Anyone coming up short on calcium can turn to a vegan supplement. Some calcium supplements are made from oyster shells, and are therefore not vegan. And many brands either contain lanolin-derived vitamin D, or they come in gelatin capsules or as tablets with non-vegan coatings.
But you’re not at all out of luck if you decide to supplement. Perhaps the best choice is Deva’s Vegan Calcium with Magnesium. Each tablet gives you about a third of your RDA for calcium, so it’s a convenient way to close the gap if your daily food choices fall short of the RDA. Plus, this brand includes vegan vitamin D, which can aid calcium absorption.
One of the only good things you can say about meat and eggs is that they’re full of protein. So if you remove these foods from your diet you’ve got to pick up the slack with other protein-rich foods.
Although it’s certainly possible to consume sufficient protein on a vegan diet without resorting to supplements, many vegans find protein powder of great value. It provides a convenient, affordable, and highly digestible way to ensure you’re not falling short of this key nutrient.
Many of the hardest-to-digest vegan foods are those that are richest in protein—particularly beans and wheat gluten. So vegan protein powder makes a great alternative. Just one scoop mixed into water provides nearly the amount of protein as an entire 16-ounce can of beans!
Adults should consume, on a daily basis, about one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. On top of this, much of this protein should come from lysine-rich foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and quinoa. One way to help ensure you’re getting sufficient protein is to get into the habit of choosing meals that contain at least one protein-rich item. If, for whatever reason, you find you’re still coming up short—or you don’t eat many lysine-rich foods—a vegan protein powder is a great way to make up the difference.
Amazon carries all the top brands of vegan protein powder. Our favorite is Orgain Organic Protein Powder in vanilla or chocolate. Orgain’s protein powder is made from the same high-quality organic ingredients found in premium brands costing twice the price, and it also packs in some omega-3s thanks to organic chia seeds. If you decide to give protein powder a try, we highly recommend also buying a 16-ounce shaker bottle. These bottles can be a little hard to find in the 16-ounce size because, most of the time, shaker bottles are used for electrolyte drinks that are consumed in larger amounts.
Vitamin D is primarily obtained in three ways:
- by exposing your skin to direct sunlight
- through drinking fortified milks (vegan or cow’s)
- via supplements
Most people, both vegans and omnivores, can benefit from Vitamin D supplements. Unfortified foods do not provide Vitamin D. And even though the body produces Vitamin D from sunlight, you need strong direct sun exposure on most of your skin for that to happen. This is impossible during winter months in temperate climates since even if you bare your skin despite the cold, the sun will be too low in the sky to provide sufficient Ultraviolet B rays to generate the vitamin. And even under the best circumstances, Since sun exposure is damaging to cells, over time you may prematurely age your skin by getting your Vitamin D from the sun instead of a supplement.
Many (but not all!) brands of soy or almond milk contain Vitamin D3 so it’s possible to meet your needs by drinking a couple glasses of these products a day.
Until recently it was impossible to buy a vegan version of Vitamin D containing the most common Vitamin D molecule (D3). Vegans were stuck buying the less potent Vitamin D2. But over the past few years, several vegan D3 brands have come to market. Doctor’s Best Vegan D3 is the most economical product we have found, and it comes in easy-to-swallow vegan capsules.
Omega-3 and DHA
There is excellent reason to include Omega-3 fats in your diet. While these fats are abundant in cold-water fish, there are also excellent vegan sources of Omega-3: walnuts, chia seeds, flax, and to a lesser extent hemp and pumpkin seeds. Of these, walnuts and chia are probably the most convenient ways to get this nutrient. You can significantly raise your Omega-3 consumption by eating a dozen or so walnut halves a day. And there are numerous vegan recipes that include chia seeds. Adding a tablespoon of chia to your smoothies is probably the easiest way to include this food in your diet. Organic raw chia seeds are inexpensive and available from Amazon.com.
Even if you’re getting plenty of Omega-3s, your body may not be properly converting these fats to provide sufficient levels of DHA and EPA. Fortunately, there are several DHA/EPA supplements on the market. Of all supplements of special interest to vegans, these are probably the most expensive. That’s because the vegan brands are algae-derived, rather than being extracted from fish. But not only is vegan DHA/EPA more humane and eco-friendly, because it’s sourced lower on the food chain you’ll be exposed to less mercury and other heavy metals. Prices have recently dropped significantly on these supplements as the market for vegan DHA/EPA has expanded and become more competitive. However, they’re still by far the most expensive supplement you’re likely to take.
The cheapest vegan DHA/EPA that we’ve found (measured by multiplying capsules per bottle and dosage per capsule and dividing that figure into the price per bottle), are Amala Vegan Vegan Omega 3 and Deva Vegan Omega-3 DHA. It’s best to order these capsules during cooler months so they’re not subjected to heat during shipment. Keep the bottle in your refrigerator to guard against spoilage.
If you follow a well-planned vegan diet, chances are you’re getting abundant amounts of most of the nutrients that a multivitamin provides. But a few nutrients may fall through the cracks, so a vegan multivitamin can help to ensure that your vegan diet doesn’t come up short. Zinc and iodine in particular are hard to obtain in sufficient amounts through vegan foods, so for many vegans these two nutrients are reason enough to take a multivitamin.
All multivitamins contain B12. But keep in mind that relying on a multivitamin to cover your B12 needs may not do the trick, as many people won’t absorb sufficient amounts from a daily tablet containing 100 percent of the US RDA.
Don’t buy a multivitamin that contains iron unless your doctor recommends it based on bloodwork, since taking in too much iron can be as hazardous as taking too little.
Deva’s Tiny Tablet Vegan Multivitamin is a solid and cost-effective choice.
Iron is abundant in a number of vegan foods including leafy green vegetables, seaweed, and some types of beans. That said, it can be a challenge for some people, especially women of child-bearing years, to obtain sufficient iron. You can easily meet these needs with iron supplements, or through a multivitamin that includes iron. Once again, it’s probably best not to take iron supplements except on the advice of your doctor based on your bloodwork, since there can be negative health consequences to taking in too much iron. One of the most affordable vegan iron supplements on the market is Deva Vegan Chelated Iron.
Note that vitamin C can significantly increase iron absorption, either when taken along with an iron supplement or ingested together with an iron-rich food. You don’t need to buy a Vitamin C supplement for this; a squeeze of lemon taken in water alongside your iron will do the trick.
Since children are often less likely than adults to eat with nutrition in mind, a multivitamin can be an important way to safeguard against deficiency. VegLife makes a chewable Vegan Kids Multiple that’s formulated to match the nutritional needs of children.
If ever there was a time to be on guard against deficiency, it’s during pregnancy. Deva’s Prenatal Multivitamin is specifically formulated to cover the needs of expectant mothers. In addition to what a multivitamin can provide, getting plenty of calcium for the new skeleton you’re building, plus making sure your DHA and EPA needs are covered, seems especially prudent.