Whether you’ve made the choice to follow a plant-based diet for health, environmental or personal reasons, the potential health benefits are plentiful:
- Studies have shown vegetarians on average are 25% less likely to die of heart disease (3)
- Those who follow a plant-based diet have a reduced risk of diabetes. (3)
- Vegetarian diets are also associated with lower blood pressure (8)
- Vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of metabolic syndrome (9)
While eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts is a healthy approach to creating a diet, there are nutritional considerations to be mindful of when following a vegan or vegetarian diet that can result in some nutrient deficiencies.
Here are the best options for supplementing when following a plant-based diet.
Best Supplements for a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
B12 is necessary for brain and nervous system health, as well as forming red blood cells, and helps with DNA regulation. While B12 can be found in some fermented and fortified foods, it’s primarily found in animal products. Studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans tend to be at a greater risk for B12 deficiency and recommend supplemental intake. (7) As we age, our body’s ability to absorb B12 also decreases because of a reduction in intrinsic factor. Older vegetarians and vegans should be taking a B12 supplement daily, look for something with at least 2.4 mcg per day. (5)
Dietary iron comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. The iron found in plant foods is non-heme and, while abundant, is less bioavailable and influenced by other food components, making vegetarians at a greater risk for deficiency. Things like tannins and phytates found in plant foods can impair the body’s ability to absorb iron. (1) Those following a plant-based diet who consume primarily non-heme forms of iron could benefit from iron supplementation, when a deficiency is determined by a physician. Iron absorption can be increased when taken with citric acid, so look for a supplement that contains vitamin C as well. For adult men, 8mg per day is sufficient, but for women, especially those of menstruating age, more is required, up to 18mg per day. (4)
Vitamin D is responsible for helping with calcium absorption, necessary for bone growth and helps with immune function. (2,10) We can make vitamin D by converting UV rays absorbed through the skin from the sun and from animal products, most abundantly fish and eggs. (10) A small amount can be found in mushrooms and fortified foods. Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet consisting of primarily whole foods are at risk of being vitamin D deficient. Those living in areas without consistent sunlight year-round, work indoors or wear sunscreen are at an even greater risk. Daily supplementation with 1000-2000 IU is common and has been shown to be safe and vitamin D supplements can be animal or plant based. (6)
Getting the Nutrients You Need
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- Abbaspour N, Hurrell R, Kelishadi R. Review on iron and its importance for human health. J Res Med Sci. 2014;19(2):164-74.
- Aranow C. Vitamin D and the Immune System. Journal of Investigative Medicine. 2011;59(6):881-886. doi:10.2310/jim.0b013e31821b8755.
- Harvard Health Publishing. Becoming a vegetarian. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/becoming-a-vegetarian. Accessed April 4, 2019.
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Iron. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/.
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/.
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin D. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
- Pawlak R, Parrott SJ, Raj S, Cullum-dugan D, Lucus D. How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians?. Nutr Rev. 2013;71(2):110-7.
- Pettersen BJ, Anousheh R, Fan J, et al. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure among white subjects:results from the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). Public Health Nutr. 2012;15:1909-16.
- Rizzo NS, Sabate J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns are associated with a lower risk of the metabolic syndrome. Diabetes Care.2011;34:1225-1227
- The physiology of vitamin D. Vitamin D Council. https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/the-physiology-of-vitamin-d/. Published July 6, 2016.
- Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, et al. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Feb 24. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.14547.