What Supplements Should A Vegan Or Vegetarian Take?

There are 5 supplements we believe almost everyone would benefit from. We call these The Vital 5 Supplements. These recommendations are made because these are the nutrients we are most likely to not have enough of and because replacing these nutrients has so much scientific evidence showing benefit. These are: 

  1. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
  2. Probiotics
  3. Calcium/Vitamin D/Bone Support
  4. Protein
  5. Antioxidants/Multivitamins/Greens

The categories don’t change if you are vegan or vegetarian (vs an omnivore or even a meat-a-saurus), but the specific supplements definitely do. We will explore these individualized recommendations here.

On top of this, there are a few more nutrient deficiencies that can occur specifically to being vegan or vegetarian:

  • B12
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Iodine

The easy part is knowing these 9 categories. The tough part is finding products that aren’t lying to you. A well-made product contains the right doses of absorbable forms of the needed nutrients, while strictly adhering to your dietary preferences. Surprise, surprise - that’s not always the case. Let’s go through each of these and figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s are fats that we HAVE to get from our diet; our bodies don’t make Omega-3. The reason Omega-3 is a Vital 5 supplement is because our intake of Omega-3 is so low, yet our Omega-6 is so high. The ratio should be 4:1 of Omega 6:Omega 3, but it is closer to 20:1. To keep it simple: Omega-6’s are inflammatory. Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. So our normal skewed intake makes a mess in the body.

Fish oil is the least expensive way to get EPA and DHA, the Omega-3 fatty acids, into your diet. For vegans and vegetarians, we have to use algae as the source. Algae is a great source of both EPA and DHA that is non-animal, but cost is the big problem. Algae yields of EPA and DHA are MUCH lower than fish, plus the farming methods are just more labor-intensive, so algae-based EPA and DHA are more expensive per 1,000 mg than the fish counterpart. Our favorite Omega-3 in this case is Marine Algae Vegan Omega 3.

We often hear a follow up question after we explain this to our vegan customers:  “Since I eat so well, do I still need so much Omega-3?” The answer is, “Probably.”

An herbivore diet can be rich in Omega-6 while still low in Omega-3. Omega-6 foods include: vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, etc), grains, nuts, beans - wait, almost everything a vegan or vegetarian would eat! 

The evidence is clear: taking the uber-common dose of just 1000mg of EPA and DHA has little benefit, but higher doses and subsequent 6:3 ratio correction WILL have a positive impact. You could get there with diet, but just like with an omnivore diet, it will be tough. Supplementation is cheaper and easier in this case, which is why Omega-3 is a Vital 5.

Purity, rancidity, and potency are our big concerns for Omega-3 quality. Our Vitality Approved Omega-3 Marine Algae Vegan Omega 3 is suitable for vegans and vegetarians exceed our standards for quality.

Probiotics

Your gut is constantly under attack: stress, diet, medicine, and supplements all can have an impact on the good bacteria that live in your gut.  Probiotics, or concentrated doses of gut-beneficial strains, are one component to a healthy gut. Probiotics are a Vital 5 supplement because it is just easier and less expensive to take a well made probiotic than trying to get them from food. Dietary probiotics are typically a mixed bag of strains, mostly supporting just one part of the gut, and their doses vary. Consistency is key when reinforcing the troops of our GI tract. Plus, supplements are calorie free. This is exciting as it leaves calories for chocolate.

It’s pretty easy to find a vegetarian probiotic. Not so much for vegans. We have countless examples of “Vegan Probiotics” that are actually cultured in dairy and then separated from the dairy-based culture medium before completion. Technically the final product is free from animal products, but that’s pretty deceitful to say the least.

We’ve gone into detail on Probiotic quality in our Buying Guide and the original Vital 5 article, so we’ll leave you with our recommendation: Probiotic Complete  - 4 heavily studied, potent, human strains, proven temperature stable, and cost-effective.

Calcium & Vitamin D

Calcium

According to the NIH, we are all horrible people who don’t get enough calcium in our diet. Our bones need calcium to not only grow long, but dense as well. We hit our peak when we are 18, and like everything in life it’s downhill from there.

Ladies - you’re at highest risk for bone disease (osteopenia and osteoporosis) since your bones are already less dense than the fellas - PLUS your bone-loving estrogen goes away with menopause. People with plant-based diets will have, typically, lower body fat percentages, meaning a slightly higher risk of weaker bones, too. This is why my dad-bod is actually a positive and I work so hard to maintain it.

Calcium is a Vital 5 supplement because even with the best diets it’s extremely difficult to get enough. Sorry, gang - plants have about 1/3 of the calcium content of animal products. According to the NIH you’d need about 12 cups of cooked kale a day. Soymilk or almond milk is often recommended as a great calcium source, but the honest truth is that they fortify that with synthetic, garbage calcium forms. Achieving the RDA for calcium via diet is a big, uphill battle.

Calcium is our “Ghost of Christmas Future” supplement as well - build your bones with enough calcium while you are young, and continue to feed them enough calcium as we age. It’s never too late to start, but it would have been best if bone density was a priority when you were young. Spread the word to the young people in your life so they have healthy bones later!

We ranted about how Calcium Doesn’t Work.  The calcium most people use doesn't help them do what they think calcium does.  Calcium carbonate and citrate not only won’t help our bones get more dense, but they can lead to heart disease and long-term side effects as well.

Our preferred form of calcium is calcium MCHA (hydroxyapatite), but this comes from animal (typically cow) bones. This form won't build bones either, but it will provide calcium and slow bone loss way better than doing nothing.  There is no non-animal source of calcium MCHA.

There are two forms of calcium we recommend along with diet that are non-animal:

These forms of calcium still run the risk of being constipating, so be aware.  AVOID Calcium Citrate and Carbonate - vegan or not, these are still not absorbable and carry great risks. Mix and match calcium types - food and supplements - don’t stick to just one form of calcium for best benefits.

Vitamin D

We now have conclusive evidence that most of us don’t have enough Vitamin D. Blood tests given with annual physicals will tell you just how low your levels are.

What does having enough Vitamin D mean to you? We don’t know, really. We know our numbers are lower compared to the rest of the world. We know Vitamin D is needed to help maintain calcium levels in the blood. Vitamin D is important, sure, but mega-dosing Vitamin D to have the highest score on your blood test is the wrong approach. Get enough to be in the “normal” range and keep taking Vitamin D to stay in the zone.

In plants, Vitamin D2 is the primary form, which is inferior (by far) to Vitamin D3. D3 supplements come from 3 places: lanolin (sheep wool), fish, and the vegan-friendly lichen.

Lichen-based Vitamin D3 isn’t as cheap as buying an animal-based Vitamin D softgel, but it isn’t going to break the bank like Omega-3 might.  Our Vitality Approved vegan Vitamin D3 products are here.

An aside: finding a true vegan or vegetarian multivitamin is difficult BECAUSE of the Vitamin D. National brands like Garden of Life or MegaFood label some of their multivitamins vegan-friendly but use Vitamin D from lanolin. Tricky tricky!

Protein

Protein is a Vital 5 supplement because most of us miss the mark with this macronutrient goal.

A common misconception is that plant-based diets won't give you ANY protein.  This is untrue.  Plant-based diets can certainly provide all the nutrients a body would crave, even the macronutrients protein and fat. But plant proteins are not complete like their animal counterparts; they don’t always contain all of the essential amino acids our body needs. On top of this, the yield is much lower. Plant sources contain about 5-7 g of protein while a similar serving of animal protein will yield 15-20g.

I wouldn’t say animal protein is better, nor would I say plant-diet proteins are better. The data shows all that matters is getting enough of all the amino acids. This is a problem for all of us, but more so for those on plant-based diets because it takes so much more work. In general, shoot for 1 gram of protein for each 1 kg of body weight (Divide your lbs by 2.2 - that’s how much protein in grams you should get).

Protein supplementation is crucial for most of us. For non-animal protein supplements, look first for truly complete proteins. Pea protein, for example, has almost all the amino acids except lysine, so our plant protein blend is typically pea with a little rice to round it out.

Proteins, especially plant proteins, are vulnerable to heavy metal contamination since those leading “high-quality brands” are importing much of it from China. Arsenic and cadmium show up the most. We have to constantly review quality documents from our contract manufacturers to ensure this is being done correctly. It’s whack-a-mole.

We don’t want protein powders to be over processed. Processing can oxidize some of the amino acids, altering the chemical composition, resulting in a lower than needed yield of some essential amino acids.

We will shortly be releasing a little guide to help you select a Vitality Approved protein supplement, since we have close to 20 different options. For now, here are a few recommendations:

Plant-Protein Only, Stevia Free: Complete Plant Protein
Plant-Protein Only, with Stevia: Vital Plant Protein and Balanced Plant Protein Vanilla and Chocolate
Plant Protein Plus Vitamins: Vital Protein Plus
Plant-Protein Nutritional Shake: Complete Nutritional Shake Vanilla and Chocolate

Antioxidant Blends

Some "experts" say a multivitamin is a "core" supplement. I disagree. Most of us are getting enough of those vitamins from even the worst diets.

Instead, I say to focus on those greens and reds and blues we often struggle to get in to the mix every day. These foods yield not only vitamins, but minerals, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and a bajillion other healthy phytonutrients.

I would hope that vegans and vegetarians are getting lots of varied fruits and vegetables in their diet. But, there are some “potato chip vegans”, right?

If you are looking for a great antioxidant blend with extra fiber, look to our new Vital Greens and Reds. I hope, though, that you plant-based diet folks are killing it in this department.

Other Nutrients a Vegan or Vegetarian May Need

Plant-based diets are amazing when done right. The best plant-based diets will have a few specific micronutrients that will fall into deficiency states just because these compounds aren’t found at all or nearly enough amounts unless taken from animals. Here’s a quick rundown of those nutrients and what to know, along with our recommendations:

Vitamin B12

This is the big one. B12 is predominantly found from animal sources and will almost always need to be supplemented if you have a plant-based diet. There are different forms of B12, but we recommend methylcobalamin (Methyl B12) as it has better bioavailability than the more common cyanocobalamin. The kind that dissolve in the mouth are SLIGHTLY better than the kind you swallow. Taking a daily dose of 1,000 mcg is more than enough, but if you fall into deficient states, talk to your doctor about the best dose.

Iron

Iron is a mineral, so the form matters. Ferrous sulfate is the most common synthetic iron out there, but it has low absorption. Most of it stays in the gut where it causes constipation. We recommend Easy Iron - a special chelate of iron. While it has a “lower” dose than ferrous sulfate (29mg vs 65mg), more of that dose is absorbed and used by the body.

Avoid heme iron if you are vegan, as that product (despite claims) comes from animal blood.

Zinc

Another mineral that some vegetarians or vegans may need. Nothing too complicated here. It’s best to keep it easy, and we’ve done so with our special zinc chelate, Easy Zinc.

Iodine

Finally, it’s important to understand that iodine is a crucial mineral found predominantly in animal products and in VERY low amounts in plants. We need about 140ish micrograms of iodine daily and most plants have less than 10 mcg in a serving.

But, plant-based dieters have two big guns: seaweed and table salt. Seaweed contains WAY more than enough iodine in most cases. Using iodized table salt is a good way to help a vegetarian or vegan get enough iodine.

If supplementation is needed, using a simple iodine liquid is best.

Vital Nutrients for Vegetarians and Vegans

I believe a well constructed diet, especially a plant-based diet, is far superior to the normal nonsense most of us do. It takes a lot of work, planning, and diligence to execute such a diet, and we salute those who are successful.

Despite our best intentions, we still may lack crucial micronutrients. Our Vital 5 highlights what we believe people from all walks of life may find beneficial.  Beyond this, a few key nutrients should be added to a plant-based diet to fill in the gaps.

No matter what our diets consist of, when we purchase supplements we deserve integrity. Always look for the right doses of the right forms of nutrients we actually need.

Just trying to keep it real...

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

neal@woodstockvitamins.com

 

About Dr. Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller is a holistic pharmacist, supplement expert, and founder of Woodstock Vitamins. Dr. Neal’s mission is to challenge the natural products industry, redefining holistic care and setting the standard for supplement quality. His methods and products are backed by real science, and with them, he builds and supports his customers’ lifelong wellness strategies.

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