Vegans need to be careful to ensure nutritional adequacy in their diets. But it's not always possible to get everything you need through food, and a multivitamin can help cover your bases. Know what to look for in the supplement aisle, so you can choose the best vegan multivitamin for you.
Vegan Diets and Nutrition
A vegan diet is one of the most restrictive types of plant-based diets. Vegans do not eat any animal products or anything containing animal-derived ingredients. This includes:
- Fish and seafood
- Dairy products
- Bee products, such as honey
- White sugar, which may contain bone char
- Beer, which may be filtered with gelatin or egg whites
- Breads made with whey, butter, eggs or sugar
- Marshmallows and gummy candy made with gelatin
- Salad dressings that contain lecithin, a stabilizer, that is often derived from animal products
- Many other food additives derived from animal products
Vegans don't lose out on much by skipping the foods and drinks on the second list, but meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs are packed full of nutrients that are sometimes found in short supply in plant foods.
Furthermore, vegans may try to cut back on carbs or limit their fat intake as part of a low carb or low-fat diet. Any type of restrictive diet increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies; adding another component to make it even more restrictive further increases the risk.
Vegan Vitamin Needs
A well-planned vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate, and in many cases very healthy. Vegans tend to have lower body weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of heart disease than meat eaters, according to HealthLink BC. They are also less likely to get prostate cancer, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes.
But lack of careful planning can lead to an increased risk of health problems due to nutrient deficiencies. According to ChooseMyPlate.gov, key vitamins and minerals that vegans may need in a multivitamin include vitamin B12, iron, calcium and vitamin D. Here's why:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that vitamin B12 is required for making genetic material and healthy red blood cells. Low B12 levels can result in megaloblastic anemia, in which the body can't produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, constipation and loss of appetite. Older adults who are vegans are at an even greater risk of deficiency because they aren't able to absorb the nutrient as well.
According to the NIH, only animal foods naturally contain B12. The only plant foods that provide the nutrient are fortified cereals, nutritional yeast and other fortified food products. All adults need 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day. Because it is a water-soluble nutrient, the body doesn't store it; that means you must be sure to get the right amount every day.
Iron is a mineral that your body uses to make a protein in red blood cells called hemoglobin that transports oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Like B12, a deficiency in iron can also cause anemia and the accompanying side effects.
The iron in plant foods and fortified foods, called non-heme iron, is different from that in animal foods, called heme iron. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body as heme iron, so vegans often need to get more of it than do meat eaters.
Some people also have increased iron needs, including premenopausal women who lose iron through menstruation each month. This is especially true for women with heavy periods. Women up to age 50 need 18 milligrams of iron per day; all men and women over age 50 need 8 milligrams daily, according to the NIH.
Calcium is crucial for building strong bones and teeth. It's found abundantly in dairy products but not as much in plant foods. According to ChooseMyPlate.gov, it may be unrealistic for some vegans to get all the calcium they need from plant foods. Getting enough calcium is especially important for women who are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition characterized by bone loss and bones that are brittle and break easily.
The recommended daily intake for calcium for women is 1,000 milligrams daily up to age 50, and 1,200 milligrams after age 50. Men need 1,000 milligrams until age 71 and 1,200 milligrams thereafter.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin your body can synthesize in the skin when exposed to the sun's rays. It's necessary for your body to absorb calcium, and a deficiency can lead to loss of bone mass and strength and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Vitamin D is found naturally only in small amounts in some plant foods, and other foods are fortified with the nutrient. According to NIH, vegan diets are associated with vitamin D deficiency, but obtaining adequate amounts of the nutrient from natural food sources alone is challenging. The RDA for vitamin D for all adults is 600 International Units (IU) daily.
Choosing a Vegan Multivitamin
The best vegan multivitamins will provide as close to 100 percent of the daily value (DV) — similar to the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) — as possible. You'll find many options that meet this criterion for B12, vitamin D and iron, but none that provide enough calcium.
According to UT Southwestern Medical Center, including the entire DV for calcium would make the pill too big to swallow. So vegans should talk to their doctor about whether it's necessary to take a separate calcium supplement.
There are some vegan multivitamins that are labeled and made specifically for vegans, but many are not — even though they may be free from animal products and qualify as vegan. Still many others will contain hidden, animal-derived ingredients, and spotting the culprits can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. PETA provides a lengthy list of animal-derived ingredients that may be included in multivitamins and other supplements.
Whether vegan or not, there are some other things to consider when choosing a multivitamin. Vitamins aren't regulated by the FDA in the same way that foods are. Therefore, there is no guarantee that they contain what the ingredients stated on the label. One way to feel more confident in the vegan vitamins you're choosing is to look for a multivitamin that has been third-party tested to ensure purity and accuracy of ingredients.
Whichever vegan multivitamin you choose, remember that a pill can't make up for a healthy diet. In addition to your supplement, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, fortified cereals, plant milks and nutritional yeast to get the full spectrum of nutrients that vegans and meat eaters alike require for optimal health.
- PETA: "Are Animal Ingredients Included in White Sugar?"
- HealthLink BC: "Vegan Diet"
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: "Tips for Vegetarians"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Consumers"
- Colorado State University Extension: "Water-Soluble Vitamins: B-Complex and Vitamin C"
- National Institutes of Health: "Iron"
- Iron Disorders Institute: "Iron We Consume"
- International Osteoporosis Foundation: "What Is Osteoporosis?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin D"
- UT Southwestern Medical Center: "5 Signs You’ve Chosen the Right Multivitamin"
- PETA: "Animal-Derived Ingredients List"
- NSF International: "What Is NSF Certification?"
- Dr. Karen S. Lee: "What Vegans Don't Eat"
- National Institutes of Health: "Calcium"
- U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention: "Home"