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, 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 amount of incorrect and potentially dangerous information. Here is what you need to know:
The only vegan foods that reliably contain significant amounts of B12 are foods 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 host 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. These supplements generally come in lozenge form, and you should let them sit under your tongue to dissolve—the B12 will be absorbed by your mouth’s capillaries more efficiently than if you swallowed the lozenge. While side effects are 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 Nature’s Bounty B-12 or NOW Foods B-12 Lozenges, since they seem to offer the biggest bang for the buck in terms of cyanocobalamin dosage and number of tablets. With either of these products, most vegans can cover their B12 needs by taking one lozenge 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 prepared with calcium sulfate 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 you’re not quite meeting your RDA through your daily food choices. 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 when 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, digestible, and affordable way to ensure you’re not falling short of this key nutrient.
As a general rule, some 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 of most brands 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 enough 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 on protein—or you don’t eat many lysine-rich foods—a vegan protein powder is a great way to make up the difference.
Amazon’s got several good 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 cup.
Vitamin D is primarily obtained in three ways: by exposing your skin to direct sunlight, through drinking fortified milks (vegan or cow’s), or through supplements. It’s not a vitamin that appears naturally in unfortified foods, and most people in temperate climates will not receive adequate sunlight exposure in winter months to ensure sufficient vitamin D levels. So a supplement can be a great way to obtain sufficient vitamin D.
Many (but not all!)brands of soy or almond milk contain D3 so it’s possible to meet your needs by drinking a couple glasses of these products a day.
Until very recently it was impossible to buy a vegan version of Vitamin D made with the most common Vitamin D molecule (D3). But in just 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’s good reason to include Omega-3 fats in your diet. Most people know that these fats are abundant in cold-water fish, but they are also a few rich sources of this fat that are vegan: walnuts, chia seeds, flax, and to a lesser extent hemp and pumpkin seeds. Of these, walnuts and chia are probably the most convenient sources. 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 derived from fish. But not only are they more humane, because they’re lower on the food chain they’re less subject to contamination.
Hands down the cheapest vegan DHA/EPA that we’ve found (measured by capsules and dosage), is Nature Made Omega 3 Vegetarian Softgels. It’s best to order this during cooler months so it’s not subjected to heat during shipment. Keep this product 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 sources, so for many vegans these two nutrients are reason enough to choose a multivitamin.
All multivitamins contain B12. But keep in mind that relying on a multivitamin to completely 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 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.
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.