By Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN+
Veganism used to be a niche topic, but with the public’s interest in plant-based foods, it’s becoming more mainstream. A vegan diet avoids all animal products or by-products, including eggs, dairy, and honey.
With planning, vegan diets can be healthy and provide many health benefits, but emphasizing specific vitamins and minerals can ensure that vegans get the adequate nutrients they need. In the same way a non-vegan lifestyle can be healthy or unhealthy depending on what foods are included in the diet, vegan diets come with unique vitamins and mineral guidelines that should be prioritized for optimal health.
Vitamin B12 is usually the primary nutrient people consider when looking for essential vitamins in a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products, so supplements are necessary to meet needs. Still, there are other nutrients to consider, either because they are harder to get from plant-based foods or because they help improve the absorption of other nutrients. [i]
People follow vegan diets for many reasons, including ethical, health, or religious practices. [ii] Plant-based diets may benefit health in many ways, including improving diet quality, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and lowering saturated fat intake. [iii]
Of course, specific food choices matter; simply being vegan isn’t enough to get these benefits. A vegan diet high in highly processed vegan food products may not be healthier than a diet containing animal products. A vegan pattern emphasizing plants and plant proteins is essential; otherwise, you could miss out on vital nutrients. 2 Eating or supplementing the diet with key nutrients can support a well-balanced vegan lifestyle. 1
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are omega-3 fatty acids that support normal function of the heart. The primary food source for these nutrients is seafood, although seeds and nuts such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts also contain EPA and DHA.
Plant-based sources of DHA and EPA contain another omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the process is inefficient compared to direct consumption from seafood, so even if you eat foods with ALA, you aren’t getting as much of the active forms per serving. [v]
Some studies suggest that people who follow a vegan diet have lower levels of DHA and EPA in their blood than those who eat meat, so supplements are a consideration.5 Many supplements use fish oil to provide EPA and DHA, which wouldn’t be suitable for people on a vegan diet, but algae-based supplements are vegan and can be an option to support healthy levels in the body. [vi]
Iron is an essential nutrient for cell growth, oxygen transport, healthy blood cell formation, energy production, and immune health. It’s found in animal products like meat, poultry, and fish, but it’s also found in many plants. 2
The amount of iron consumed by people following vegan diets is high, as leafy greens, grains, and beans all contain iron. The type of iron found in these foods is called non-heme iron (versus heme iron found in animal sources). Non-heme iron is less bioavailable than heme iron because it has to go through an extra step before it can be absorbed by the body. Even if someone following a vegan diet eats the same amount of total iron as someone who eats meat, the amount of absorbable iron might be lower. Compounds like phytates or tannins in plant foods can also interfere with absorption. [vii]
As a result, iron recommendations for people on a vegan diet are higher to make up for lower absorption rates.[viii] Supplementation is often used in addition to diet to meet those needs, but iron supplements should always be discussed with your healthcare practitioner before taking them because too much iron can be toxic. [ix]
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for the normal function of the immune system. It’s also important for skin health and acts as an antioxidant. You can find vitamin C in many fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, bell pepper, broccoli, and potatoes. People who follow vegan diets that include these foods often have adequate amounts, but those who rely on processed and packaged foods may be lacking. [x]
Aside from its primary jobs in your body listed above, vitamin C optimizes iron absorption, making it especially important for people who get iron from non-heme iron sources. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption by (reducing iron) to a form that’s easier for your body to absorb. Pairing iron-rich meals with foods that contain vitamin C (or supplemental vitamin C) could help support healthy iron levels. 10
Folate is a B vitamin that supports normal psychological function, homocysteine metabolism and immune system function. It also supports energy levels by contributing to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, normal blood formation, plays a role in cell division and amino acid synthesis.[xi] It’s especially critical to get enough in the reproductive years to support a healthy pregnancy.[xii]
Folate works closely with vitamin B12 for red blood cells and nerve cell production. The two nutrients also help maintain healthy homocysteine levels, an amino acid in the blood associated with cardiovascular health.
Like vitamin C, folate is found in a wide variety of plant foods like vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, so eating a balanced diet rich in plant foods is the best way to get enough of it unless the diet is high in processed foods.1
Some foods are also fortified with folic acid, but supplements are an option to meet needs. Folate supplementation (in the form of folic acid) is recommended for women who could become pregnant even if they eat enough of these folate-containing foods because it’s such a critical nutrient for healthy fetal development. [xiii]
Calcium, a mineral essential for bone health and muscle and nerve function, is found in high amounts in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, so people who follow a vegan lifestyle may have a low intake. Even though plant-based foods like leafy greens and broccoli contain calcium, studies suggest that vegans may have lower bone mineral density and increased fracture risk, possibly due to inadequate calcium intake (among other bone-building nutrients). 2
Similar to iron, the calcium found in some plants is less bioavailable due to oxalates, phytates, and fiber. These foods interrupt calcium absorption from plant-based sources, with bioavailability rates ranging from 20 to 40%.[xiv]
To meet the recommended daily intake for calcium, vegans can focus on calcium-rich foods like fortified plant-based milk, tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, navy beans, and leafy greens and possibly use calcium supplements to fill in the gaps.
The sunshine nutrient, vitamin D, works alongside calcium to support bone health. [xv] It’s also essential for muscle function and immune health. Sun is the primary source of vitamin D, but many people don’t get enough since so many factors affect our exposure. Time of day, use of sun protection like sunscreen or UV-blocking shirts, skin color, geophagy, age, and genetics are just some factors that influence how much vitamin D we gain from the sun.[xvi]
Vitamin D isn’t found in very many foods. Fatty fish and fortified foods could, but people following vegan diets (and even those who don’t) may consider supplements to fill in the gaps, especially in low-sun climates or during winter. Vegan vitamin D supplements are available, but it’s important to read nutrition labels carefully since some vitamin D is sourced from animal sources. 2
Selenium is a trace element needed for antioxidant activity. It’s also an essential nutrient for thyroid health as it’s required for thyroid hormone production. [xvii] Selenium is found in plant foods like Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, and mushrooms. 2
The amount of selenium in the soil influences how much is found in foods, so the amount in a particular food can vary. A study comparing vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores found low selenium for all groups, so it may be a nutrient to consider supplementing for all diet patterns. 16
Zinc is needed for immune health, enzyme and cofactor production, iron metabolism, and skin health. It’s found in meat, dairy, eggs, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Bioavailability is an issue for plant-based sources of zinc as phytates can interfere with absorption. [xviii] Zinc absorption ranges from 5% to more than 50%, depending on the amount contained in plant-based foods in the diet. [xix]
Studies suggest people following a vegan diet may have lower zinc levels. [xx] Strategies to improve bioavailability from foods or supplement with a zinc supplement could help ensure adequate zinc intake.19
Takeaway: Optimal Nutrient Intake is Vital for a Vegan Diet
Each of the above nutrients can make the difference between a diet pattern that is adequate and one that meets all the requirements for optimal health. A balanced vegan diet can provide the nutrients needed to thrive, but it’s essential to pay attention to food choices and supplement if necessary.
If you’re considering a vegan eating pattern, make sure you understand what nutrient sources are available and take additional steps to ensure optimal intake. Working with a healthcare practitioner who can look closely at your diet to assess for gaps and recommend supplements as needed can help create a plan individualized to your body.
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and freelance health writer. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and over ten years of experience as a registered dietitian.
+The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Pure Encapsulations®.
[i] Neufingerl N, Eilander A. Nutrient Intake and Status in Adults Consuming Plant-Based Diets Compared to Meat-Eaters: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2021;14(1):29. Published 2021 Dec 23. doi:10.3390/nu14010029
[ii] Sakkas H, Bozidis P, Touzios C, et al. Nutritional Status and the Influence of the Vegan Diet on the Gut Microbiota and Human Health. Medicina (Kaunas). 2020;56(2):88. Published 2020 Feb 22. doi:10.3390/medicina56020088
[iii] Miles FL, Lloren JIC, Haddad E, et al. Plasma, Urine, and Adipose Tissue Biomarkers of Dietary Intake Differ Between Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Diet Groups in the Adventist Health Study-2. J Nutr. 2019;149(4):667-675. doi:10.1093/jn/nxy292
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[vi] Sarter B, Kelsey KS, Schwartz TA, Harris WS. Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Clin Nutr. 2015;34(2):212-218. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2014.03.003
[vii] Haider LM, Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G, Ekmekcioglu C. The effect of vegetarian diets on iron status in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018;58(8):1359-1374. doi:10.1080/10408398.2016.1259210
[viii] Pawlak R, Berger J, Hines I. Iron Status of Vegetarian Adults: A Review of Literature. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;12(6):486-498. Published 2016 Dec 16. doi:10.1177/1559827616682933
[ix] Gallego-Narbón A, Zapatera B, Vaquero MP. Physiological and Dietary Determinants of Iron Status in Spanish Vegetarians. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1734. Published 2019 Jul 26. doi:10.3390/nu11081734
[x] Piskin E, Cianciosi D, Gulec S, Tomas M, Capanoglu E. Iron Absorption: Factors, Limitations, and Improvement Methods. ACS Omega. 2022;7(24):20441-20456. Published 2022 Jun 10. doi:10.1021/acsomega.2c01833
[xi] EFSA Journal 2009; 7(9):1213. https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1213
[xii] Caffrey A, McNulty H, Rollins M, et al. Effects of maternal folic acid supplementation during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy on neurocognitive development in the child: an 11-year follow-up from a randomised controlled trial. BMC Med. 2021;19(1):73. Published 2021 Mar 10. doi:10.1186/s12916-021-01914-9
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[xiv] Melse-Boonstra A. Bioavailability of Micronutrients From Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods: Zooming in on Dairy, Vegetables, and Fruits. Front Nutr. 2020;7:101. Published 2020 Jul 24. doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.00101
[xv] Mangels AR. Bone nutrients for vegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100 Suppl 1:469S-75S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.071423
[xvi] Wacker M, Holick MF. Sunlight and Vitamin D: A global perspective for health. Dermatoendocrinol. 2013;5(1):51-108. doi:10.4161/derm.24494
[xvii] Fallon N, Dillon SA. Low Intakes of Iodine and Selenium Amongst Vegan and Vegetarian Women Highlight a Potential Nutritional Vulnerability. Front Nutr. 2020;7:72. Published 2020 May 20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.00072
[xviii] Lemale J, Mas E, Jung C, Bellaiche M, Tounian P; French-speaking Pediatric Hepatology, Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group (GFHGNP). Vegan diet in children and adolescents. Recommendations from the French-speaking Pediatric Hepatology, Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group (GFHGNP). Arch Pediatr. 2019;26(7):442-450. doi:10.1016/j.arcped.2019.09.001
[xix] Office of dietary supplements – zinc. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/.
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