Contrary to popular belief, a well-executed vegan or plant-based diet can contain most of the essential nutrients you need.
Claims vegans “don’t get enough protein” is tantamount to arguments levied against a plant-based diet.
Of course, these sorts of claims are totally unfounded. Studies time and time again reinforce the understanding that an exclusively plant-based diet is no different than a diet which contains whey or meat protein. This is even true when it comes to fitness goals in supporting muscle mass and strength .
Conversely, while increased plant-based protein is associated with better health outcomes, high intake of meat and dairy based protein was associated with worse health outcomes. It increased the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, and liver disease .
Aside from protein, what are the key nutrients women need to look for in a plant-based or vegan multivitamin? Typically, we would recommend only a select few supplements as “essential,” while a number of others can help benefit overall health despite a clean diet.
What Might Be Missing
We’ll touch on the crucial vitamins and minerals that should always be supplemented by those on a vegan or plant-based diet below.
Some other nutrients or botanicals to keep in mind may depend on specific health goals, like improving digestive health. Women looking to support their immune system and overall health should also look into the following:
- Magnesium (150 mg - 300 mg) – ensure proper muscle + nerve function; great for better sleep and quelling anxiety.
- Selenium (25 mcg - 50 mcg) – trace mineral essential for thyroid health and hormonal function.
- Curcumin (derived from turmeric) – reduce inflammation; great for endometriosis and PCOS sufferers.
- Creatine – not just for pre-workout, creatine supports cognitive health and muscle function.
- Maca Root – balances hormones naturally. A superfood for those looking to decrease PMS symptoms or increase energy levels.
- Zinc – crucial not just for men and prostate health, but also healthy hair, nails, brain function and immunity.
- Probiotics – can help with rebuilding a healthy gut ecosystem. Those with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or histamine intolerance need to opt for probiotics that don’t produce histamine, like Lactobacillus plantarum.
Whether you adhere to a strict plant-based diet or you’re a full-fledged carnivore, vitamin D is a key nutrient that is commonly deficient in the general population.
An important distinction for those vegan or plant-based is that most vitamin D supplements are not.
Vegan D3 can be derived from an animal source (sheep’s wool) or lichen (plant-source). The vast majority of vitamin D3 you’ll find in stores or pharmacies is made from sheep’s wool (lanolin). That’s why ensuring you order a D3 that specifies that it is vegan or plant-based is especially important. Lichen is an algae-fungus source that is commonly found in nature in abundance.
It’s a completely natural source of D3, that is also safe and equally well absorbed. It is important to opt for D3 (cholecalciferol) over D2 (ergocalciferol), which is slightly less effective .
So, why the need for D3?
That warrants an entire blog post of its own. In brief, D3 is vital for immune system function, brain health, and supporting the nervous system. Vitamin D3 ensures proper absorption and utilization of calcium, and is needed by the body to absorb calcium from food in tandem with K2 – which helps shuttle this calcium to bones and teeth .
A severe or pronounced vitamin D3 deficiency is implicated in all kinds of disorders – many neurological . Considering most people get their D3 from direct sunlight, it is important to supplement. Those in colder or darker climates, or with an office job are at greater risk of developing a deficiency if they haven’t already.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods in appreciable quantities, and used to be found in a plant-based diet thanks to bacteria naturally present in the soil. Claimed plant-based sources of B12 like dried nori, spirulina, and wheat grass are not effective substitutes for a B12 supplement .
Plants do not require B12, and therefore do not contain it. It is produced by bacteria, not by animals or plants. Animals that acquire this B12 through bacteria then synthesize it and accumulate it in their tissues, often via microbial interaction. This is why it is present in meat and dairy .
B12 (cobalamin) is an essential water-soluble nutrient. It is only found in plant-foods that are “fortified.” Nutritional yeast is a commonly used product that is heavily fortified with B12 and other B-vitamins. B12 supplements have a fairly low bioavailability, which is why you often see B12 supplements at doses of 1,000 mcg or higher. Reports indicate that only about 1.3% of this is effectively absorbed .
This reinforces the need for daily B12 supplementation among vegan and plant-based populations. Methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, and hydroxycobalamin are all preferred forms compared to the synthetically produced cyanocobalamin .
Iron is a bit of a tricky supplement. Iron is vital for red blood cells and deficiency leads to anemia. While vegans and plant-based eaters are at a potential higher risk of deficiency due to lower stores, an excess of iron is also detrimental to health . Particularly, brain health seems to be negatively impacted.
However, the RDI for women is 18 mg per day, which is considered quite safe. Many women who are low in iron and don’t consume a ton of legumes or greens probably experience lethargy and dizzy spells. Iron deficiency does need to be addressed, because it can cause you to become ill more easily and often leaves people feeling depleted and tired.
Plant-based food contains a ton of iron – oats, legumes, greens, nuts, and seeds. Unfortunately, they are in non-heme iron form, which is typically absorbed less effectively by the body than that from animal sources . Vegans or vegetarians can always boost the absorption of nonheme iron by combining iron rich plant foods with vitamin C.