Do vegans need to take supplements?

Vegans can forgo the supplements. You can be healthy and happy as a vegan without them.

All the nutrients you need can be found in whole plant-based vegan foods. Focus on eating a variety of whole foods and plenty of calories throughout the day and you won’t have any trouble consuming enough protein or calcium. Even omega fatty acids can be found in fruits and veggies!

I suggest you track everything you eat and drink on Cronometer.com if you are concerned with meeting nutritional requirements, or if you happen to be curious about the nutritional quality of your current eating habits. I tracked my food intake for a week using Cronometer and learned quite a bit. (Read this post if you want some tips on how to use Cronometer.)

Protein.

Protein is never a problem for vegans (or for anyone, for that matter). Most of us assume only meat, beans, and nuts contain protein, but in fact, the opposite is true. All foods contain some measure of protein. I get plenty of protein in my diet and I only eat fruits and veggies. Other healthful vegan staples like rice, oats, and pasta contain protein as well.

Based on my research, we need roughly 50 grams of protein per day. I typically eat between 42-68 grams of protein each day, all from fruits and veggies. Most of my protein comes from grapes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Now I tend to eat more baby potatoes than sweet potatoes, but in general, potatoes are high in protein and nutritious. (And they are tasty and cheap!)

The Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School health blog explained how to calculate how much protein we need:

  • The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick — not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day.
  • To determine your RDA for protein, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, or use this online protein calculator.
  • For a relatively active adult, eating enough protein to meet the RDA would supply as little as 10% of his or her total daily calories. In comparison, the average American consumes around 16% of his or her daily calories in the form of protein, from both plant and animal sources.
    • As a HCLF vegan, I aim to eat 10% of my daily calories from protein. My protein sources of fruits and veggies are always low in fat and nutrient rich.

Meeting the RDA for protein is easy for vegans and non-vegans alike. According to The World’s Healthiest Foods:

  • You can pick a relatively small number of foods and reach the Daily Value (DV) for protein—50 grams—fairly easily. For example, four ounces of cod, four ounces of tofu, and 1.5 cups of green peas will give you the full 50 grams.
  • Vegetables can contain more protein than you might guess. Some categories of vegetable, brassicas and greens, for instance, can contain 5-10% of your protein needs per serving. You’ll be getting over 5 grams of protein from a single cup of spinach or collards, and over 7 grams from a single cup of green peas.
  • An average American lacto-ovo-vegetarian (a vegetarian who eats dairy and eggs) eats 89 grams of protein per day, almost twice the Daily Value (DV) of 50 grams. Even when we subtract the contributions of dairy and eggs, we still see about 60 grams of protein from purely plant sources.

And for my favourite part of this article:

  • It would actually be quite difficult to design a whole foods diet that provided less than 10% of its calories from protein. An 1,800-calorie whole foods diet consisting exclusively of fruit, for example, would typically still provide at least 40 grams of protein. An 1,800 calorie whole foods diet consisting exclusively of broccoli would provide 121 grams! Of course, we would never recommend either of these approaches to a meal plan, but they are helpful in demonstrating just how difficult it is to come up with a highly protein deficiency diet based on a whole foods approach to eating.

So remember, you will never need to worry about eating enough protein as a vegan, even if you only eat fruits and veggies.

Calcium.

Before going vegan, I was convinced (like most people) that we need to eat dairy products for calcium. If I didn’t eat dairy products, I was told I would need to take a supplement to ensure I’m getting enough calcium. That simply isn’t true.

Fruits and veggies contain all the calcium you need. We do not need cow’s milk, dairy products, or supplements. Plenty of vegan foods like dark leafy greens are naturally rich in calcium. Non-dairy milks and cereals are typically fortified with calcium as well.

I get the bulk of my calcium from grapes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. (These same delicious foods also happen to provide me with most of my protein.)

According to The World’s Healthiest Foods:

  • Calcium is provided by a wide variety of foods, and in order to get 1,000 milligrams per day (the Dietary Reference Intake, or DRI for women and men 19-50 years of age), you don’t need cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese or butter.
  • 1 cup of steamed collards and 1 cup of cow’s milk are nearly identical in terms of calcium (with collards providing 266 milligrams and cow’s milk providing 276 milligrams).
  • 100 calories worth of spinach provides you with twice as much calcium as 100 calories worth of yogurt.
  • As you can see from the examples above, many non-dairy foods can provide you with substantial amounts of calcium. Particularly helpful in this regard are green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale….Finally, a very helpful non-dairy food for boosting your calcium intake is tofu.
  • One of the reasons for tofu’s rich calcium content involves the tofu production process itself since calcium is often used to help cause precipitation of the soy milk (i.e., conversion of the soy milk into a more solid form).

Omega Fatty Acids.

Often people assume we need to eat fish for essential fatty acids, but omega-3 (and even omega-6) are found in a variety of vegan foods. Most of my omega-3 comes from berries, mangos, grapes, and broccoli. I have no trouble reaching 97% of my daily omega-3 allowance when I eat raspberries. (They also contain omega-6.)

Here are some vegan sources of omega 3 from The World’s Healthiest Foods:

  • Excellent sources include flaxseeds and walnuts.
  • Very good sources include cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and mustard seeds.
  • Good sources include a wide variety of vegetables (collard and turnip greens, spinach, kale, green beans, romaine lettuce, summer squash, and winter squash), legumes and foods made from legumes (soybeans, tofu, and miso), and fruits (strawberries and, raspberries).

Omega-6 is found in abundance in oils from grains, nuts and legumes. I recommend avoiding oil, but feel free to eat a small amount of nuts moderation. You’ll find plenty of omega-6 in your diet if you eat a variety of fruits and veggies. Most of my omega-6 comes from kiwis, mushrooms, berries, and grapes.

Vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient vegans may choose to supplement. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products but a few vegan sources do exist.

From The World’s Healthiest Foods:

  • Microorganisms—and especially bacteria and fungi—are the only organisms definitively known to produce vitamin B12.
  • Mushrooms (since they are themselves fungi) often contain B12, as do fermented plant foods like tempeh or miso since they have been produced with the help of microorganisms.
    • The amount of B12 contained in these foods is low. 200 grams of mushrooms provides 8% of my daily allowance of B12. Tempeh yields more B12 but is high in fat. A mere 200 grams of tempeh gives me 7% of my daily B12 and a whopping 21 grams of fat–the entirety of my daily fat allowance! Miso contains only 1% of my daily B12 in each Tablespoon. 
  • Even though land animals and fish cannot make vitamin B12 in their cells, they are often able to save up B12 produced by bacteria and concentrate it in their cells. For this reason, many land animal foods and many seafoods are nutrient-rich in B12.
  • Most healthcare providers—including most nutritionists—currently recommend that persons who exclusively consume plant foods take steps to ensure their B12 nourishment by adding foods fortified with B12 or B12-containing supplements to their daily routine.

As far as vegan sources of B12, some brands of nutritional yeast contain it, but I tend to avoid nutritional yeast because it’s processed and I only eat fruits and veggies at this time. I also like my veggies unseasoned. If you like using nutritional yeast in your cooking, check the label for details and use it as a tasty B12 supplement to your diet.

Fortunately, our bodies can store B12 for several years. If you’ve been vegan for quite some time, though, you may need to take a B12 supplement.

Sorry for the novel!

In summary, you don’t need to take any supplements as a vegan if you eat sufficient calories and a variety of fruits and veggies. If you like nutritional yeast, find a brand that contains B12 (like Engevita) and use it in your cooking in lieu of taking a B12 supplement. Only worry about taking a B12 supplement after you’ve been vegan for several years.


Most of the information in this post came from my previous ‘What I eat in a day‘ posts. Check them out for a detailed explanation of the foods I eat and their nutritional content.

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