I’m ve­gan, do I need to take sup­ple­ments?

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Q: I turned ve­gan three months ago and I’m re­ally en­joy­ing it but should I be wor­ried about nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies? Should I be tak­ing any sup­ple­ments? – Belinda

If you eat a ve­gan diet, you need to en­sure you ob­tain op­ti­mal lev­els of spe­cific nu­tri­ents that can be too low when you eat this way. With any par­tic­u­lar diet or way of eat­ing, it is the food choices that are made within the con­text of that diet that will de­ter­mine whether it is nu­tri­tion­ally ad­e­quate, not the la­bel.

The nu­tri­ents that you need to be par­tic­u­larly mind­ful of as a ve­gan in­clude vi­ta­min B12, iron (par­tic­u­larly for men­stru­at­ing women), zinc, cal­cium and omega3 fatty acids.


The only food sources of vi­ta­min B12 are an­i­mal foods, so this is one nu­tri­ent that you must sup­ple­ment if you con­tinue eat­ing a ve­gan diet. This means either tak­ing a sup­ple­ment or eat­ing vi­ta­min B12-for­ti­fied foods. Your

Ask Dr Libby

Email your ques­tions for Dr Libby to ask.dr­libby@fair­fax­me­dia.co.nz. Please note, only a se­lec­tion of ques­tions can be an­swered. vi­ta­min B12 stores will gen­er­ally last a cou­ple of years, how­ever a de­fi­ciency can cause ir­re­versible dam­age so it’s vi­tal that you don’t let your­self get de­pleted.


Plant-based sources of iron in­clude green leafy veg­eta­bles, chick­peas, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and dates. How­ever, al­though iron is present in these foods, it is not at high lev­els nor is it in a form that the body eas­ily ab­sorbs.

For some veg­e­tar­i­ans and ve­g­ans, the body utilises the iron from vegetable sources ef­fi­ciently, whereas for oth­ers, less so. Ab­sorp­tion of plant-based iron is en­hanced in the pres­ence of vi­ta­min C, so in­clud­ing some vi­ta­min C-rich foods (such as broc­coli, cap­sicum and lemon) with your meals can help. It’s also im­por­tant to avoid drink­ing tea, cof­fee and wine with meals, as tan­nins in these can bind the iron, which in­hibits ab­sorp­tion.

It’s im­por­tant to have your iron lev­els checked be­fore sup­ple­ment­ing, as an ex­cess of iron in the body is also prob­lem­atic, and some of the symp­toms of iron over­load are ac­tu­ally sim­i­lar to those of de­fi­ciency.


Food sources of zinc for you in­clude sun­flower seeds and pump­kin seeds. These con­tain around 2mg of zinc per 30g serve. Nuts and legumes also con­tain small amounts of zinc. Women re­quire 8mg of zinc per day and men re­quire 14mg per day to pre­vent de­fi­ciency.


Plant-based sources of cal­cium in­clude green leafy veg­eta­bles (such as broc­coli and kale), figs, sesame seeds, tahini and al­monds. If you are choos­ing to con­sume a non-dairy milk (such as al­mond or rice milk), there are cal­ci­um­for­ti­fied op­tions avail­able which can help to en­sure you are meet­ing your cal­cium re­quire­ments. You can check the la­bel to see if it has cal­cium added.


The omega-3 fatty acid that is found in plants is called al­phali­nolenic acid (ALA) and it is an es­sen­tial fatty acid, mean­ing the body can­not syn­the­sise it so we must ob­tain it from our food. ALA is found in chia seeds, flaxseeds and wal­nuts. The body can con­vert ALA into EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids that are present in oily fish, how­ever this con­ver­sion can be in­ef­fi­cient. DHA is also found in al­gae, so there are some plant-based DHA sup­ple­ments avail­able if needed.

Dr Libby is a nu­tri­tional bio­chemist, best-sell­ing au­thor and speaker. The ad­vice con­tained in this col­umn is not in­tended to be a sub­sti­tute for di­rect, per­son­alised ad­vice from a health pro­fes­sional. See Dr Libby live dur­ing her up­com­ing ‘WhatAmI Sup­posed To Eat?’ tour through­out New Zealand. For more in­for­ma­tion and to pur­chase tick­ets, visit dr­libby.com


There are cal­cium-for­ti­fied al­mond milk op­tions for those who go ve­gan.

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