A plant-based diet provides many health benefits, including a lower risk for heart disease and diabetes, and protection against some cancers. Despite these perks, there are a few things to be mindful of when deciding to go on a vegan diet.
For example, vegans are more likely to be deficient in important nutrients like vitamin B-12, zinc and calcium — each of which plays a vital role in the body. Recent research has found that, on average, vegans consume only about 10% to 20% of the recommended amount of vitamin B-12 each day.
However, vegans can avoid these dietary deficiencies by consuming the right combination of nutrient-rich foods and supplements. We’ve rounded up eight of the most important minerals and vitamins for vegans to help you create a well-balanced, meat-free meal plan. You’ll also learn what to look for in vegan vitamins to help supplement your nutrient intake.
Daily recommended intake: 2.4 micrograms per day.
Vitamin B-12 serves several important roles in the body, including DNA and red blood cell production and nerve function. The human body can’t produce this vitamin, so most people rely on animal products (like meat and dairy) to get their recommended intake of vitamin B-12. As a result, vegans are more likely to develop a vitamin B-12 deficiency than meat-eaters.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency symptoms
- Loss of appetite
- Blurred vision
- Numbness and tingling of hands and feet
- Digestive problems
- Feeling lightheaded or weak
- Mood swings
- Memory loss
Foods rich in vitamin B-12
For vegans, it can be tricky to find foods rich in vitamin B-12, since it’s mainly found in animal products. However, food manufacturers that cater to plant-based eaters often add B-12 to their products, such as fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, nondairy milk and tofu.
Daily recommended intake: 8 milligrams for men over 19 years old and adults under 51 years old, or 18 milligrams for women between 19 and 51 years old.
Iron is a mineral that helps red blood cells transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. It’s also used to create certain hormones and assists with brain development in children. Although iron is found in animal- and plant-based food products, vegans need to consume nearly twice the recommended daily amount as their meat-eating counterparts. This is because it’s harder for the body to absorb iron from plant-based sources, known as nonheme iron.
Iron deficiency symptoms
- Cold hands and feet
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Chest pain or shortness of breath
- Thin and brittle nails
- Cravings for nonfood items (like dirt or ice)
Foods rich in iron
Iron is available in plant-based (nonheme) and animal-based (heme) sources. Vegans can get their daily fill of iron by eating foods like beans, tofu, fortified cereal, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, spinach, broccoli, quinoa, nuts and whole grain pasta.
Daily recommended intake: 1,000 milligrams for adults under 50 years old or 1,200 milligrams for women over 50 years old and men over 70 years old.
Calcium is another mineral that helps with essential bodily functions. Importantly, calcium is important for bone health, blood flow and the release of hormones. It also keeps your muscles and teeth strong. Vegans often struggle to get enough calcium through diet alone since it’s primarily found in dairy products.
Calcium deficiency symptoms
- Memory loss
- Numb and tingling hands, feet and face
- Muscle cramps
- Thin, brittle nails
- Easily breakable bones
Foods rich in calcium
The average American will consume most of their calcium from milk, cheese and yogurt. Vegans will want to look toward plant-based calcium sources such as chia seeds, soy milk, tofu, almonds, kale, broccoli and arugula.
Daily recommended intake: 600 international units for adults up to 70 years old or 800 IU for adults over 70 years old.
Unlike the other vitamins and minerals on this list, your body can produce vitamin D — but it needs sunlight to do it. However, vitamin D deficiencies are very common, with 42% of American adults not getting the daily recommended amount. Although vitamin D is found in certain foods like fish and eggs, many of these foods aren’t compatible with vegan diets. As a result, nonmeat eaters may find it difficult to meet the suggested intake — unless they consume it in vitamins or from direct sun exposure.
Vitamin D deficiency symptoms
- Bone pain
- Muscle weakness, cramps or aches
- Mood changes such as depression
Foods rich in vitamin D
In addition to getting sunlight a few times per week, vegans can also incorporate certain foods into their diet to get enough vitamin D. These foods include mushrooms, fortified cereal and fortified drinks like orange juice, soy milk and rice milk.
Daily recommended intake: 8 milligrams for adult women or 11 milligrams for adult men.
Zinc is an essential nutrient that facilitates several key functions, including your body’s development and growth, immune response, wound healing and blood clotting. Because your body can’t produce or store zinc, it’s important to seek out zinc-rich foods or take supplements to hit the daily recommended intake. Unfortunately, most foods that contain zinc aren’t vegan-friendly, so people on plant-based diets frequently have lower zinc levels than meat-eaters.
Zinc deficiency symptoms
- Slow growth
- Impaired immune function
- Skin lesions
- Hair loss
- Delayed healing of wounds
- Taste abnormalities
Foods rich in zinc
Animal products like fish, poultry and meat are the most common sources of zinc. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you can get zinc from foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, mushrooms, kale and asparagus.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Daily recommended intake: 500 milligrams of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) combined; the adequate intake for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is 1.6 grams for adult men and 1.1 grams for adult women.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that help with heart health, regulate blood pressure and reduce inflammation in your body. There are three main types: DHA, EPA and ALA. DHA and EPA omega-3s are the most important types and are mostly found in fish, so it can be tough for vegans to get enough from diet alone.
Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency symptoms
- Dry, itchy skin
- Increased acne
- Dry eyes
- Vision problems
- Stiff or painful joints
- Thin or dry hair
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Fatty and oily fish like salmon, herring and mackerel are the biggest sources of omega-3 fatty acids. But since they aren’t vegan-friendly, people on a plant-based diet can get their daily recommended intake of omega-3s from flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed, walnuts, soybeans and Brussels sprouts.
Daily recommended intake: 150 micrograms for adults
Iodine is a mineral that the body uses to create thyroid hormones, which help with metabolism and cell repair. It’s naturally found in some food, in soil and added to certain table salts. About one-third of the world’s population suffers from iodine deficiency — with vegans at a higher risk than meat-eaters.
Iodine deficiency symptoms
- Swollen neck (known as a goiter)
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Feeling cold
- Slower heart rate
- Learning difficulties
- Heavier or irregular menstrual flow
Foods rich in iodine
Like most of the other minerals on this list, iodine is primarily found in animal products like fish, eggs and dairy. For vegans, iodine-rich options include seaweed, lima beans, prunes and iodized table salt.
Daily recommended intake: 90 micrograms for women or 120 micrograms for men
Vitamin K assists with blood clotting and protects against excessive bleeding. It comes in two forms: vitamin K1, which is found in certain vegetables and plant oils, and vitamin K2, which is found in animal products and fermented foods. There are fewer vegan-friendly foods that are naturally rich in vitamin K2, so vegans should be mindful of getting enough through supplements or fermented products.
Vitamin K deficiency symptoms
- Excessive bleeding
- Easy bruising
- Blood clots under nails
- Dark and bloody stool
Foods rich in vitamin K
People on plant-based diets can get vitamin K1 from leafy greens and vegetables like kale, spinach, collard greens, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. They can get vitamin K2 through fermented foods such as natto (a fermented soybean dish), vegan sauerkraut, kimchi and dairy-free kefir.
Too long, didn’t read?
Sticking to a plant-based diet is an effective way to protect yourself against certain diseases and illnesses. However, if you are vegan, it’s important to be mindful of your vitamin and mineral intake to ensure that you’re hitting the daily recommended intake of these eight vital nutrients. If you can’t meet the suggested amount through food alone, you can consider taking vegan vitamins and supplements to boost your nutrient intake.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.