In the U.S, the CDC notes that nearly 10 percent of people have a nutritional deficiency. Across the pond, in the UK, the NHS has referred to malnutrition as a “common problem” that affects millions. If you’re not eating a balanced variety of healthy foods, vitamin deficiency is a risk, whatever lifestyle you follow (vegan or not). Let’s look at what nutrient deficiency is, whether we can get important vitamins from food, and examine: Do vegans need supplements?
What Is a Nutrient Deficiency?
Nutritional deficiencies occur when the body isn’t getting enough of a certain vitamin or mineral. Deficiencies can cause a number of health problems; they can stunt growth, cause hair loss, and even contribute to serious medical conditions, like dementia.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting more than 25 percent of people. Severe iron deficiency can cause anemia, which can lead to heart problems, issues during pregnancy, such as premature births, and delayed growth and development in children. Vitamin D deficiency is also common, as is B12 and calcium deficiency. One study found that fewer than 15 percent of teenage girls and fewer than 22 percent of teenage boys in the U.S. have enough calcium in their diet.
Can We Get Enough Vitamins From Food?
In the last century, diets have changed massively. The Standard American Diet took off in the mid-1900s, and calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods became mass-produced and easily-accessible. Nowadays, processed food is everywhere. Fast-food joints are on every corner, selling burgers loaded with bacon and cheese, fries, and sugary soft drinks. These types of food can pose serious health risks (processed meat, for example, is a Group 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organization).
Processed foods are not the best sources of nutrients. Fruits and vegetables, however, are rich in the important vitamins and minerals that our body needs.
But it’s not always straightforward. Vegetables grown decades ago were richer in vitamins and minerals than they are today. In part, this is due to the climate crisis and environmental damage. Rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere can impact a plant’s overall chemical composition or its “ionome.” This can lead to lower concentrations of important vitamins and minerals. Soil erosion, caused by intensive agricultural methods, has also led to nutrient loss in staple crops.
While the nutrient quality of fruits and vegetables has decreased over time, this doesn’t mean you should give up on them. The best way to get vitamins into the body is still through food, and whole foods, in particular, are the most nutrient-dense options we have on offer to us (these include: whole grains, legumes, pulses, fruits, and vegetables).
Following a balanced, whole food-based plant-based diet is considered by many as one of the healthiest ways to eat. You can find out more about the benefits of the lifestyle here, as well as a few handy recipe suggestions.
Do Vegans Need Supplements?
Vegan or not, if you’re not eating a varied, healthy diet, this is when you may need to consider supplementing your vitamins. If you’re concerned about whether you’re getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals in your diet, first, consult with a physician.
One of the key vitamins vegans (and everyone else) need to be aware of is B12, this important vitamin helps to keep nerve and blood cells healthy. It is possible to get it through vegan fortified foods, but there are also plenty of supplement options on the market. To find out more on whether you should supplement B12, check out our explainer here.
Vitamin D, calcium, and iron are also important to be aware of; all are found in plant-based foods, but again, if you’re not eating a balanced diet, supplementation could be a worthwhile option. You can find our explainers on Vitamin D and calcium here and here, as well as an in-depth study on iron intake here.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to answer the question “do vegans need supplements?” Vegans are not a monolith: lifestyles and food choices vary. One vegan who eats only whole foods is going to be far healthier than another who eats mainly vegan burgers and fries, for example. But it’s the same with every other dietary and lifestyle choice, all of our food choices and bodies vary.
The best thing to do is to ensure you’re eating as many fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods as possible. And if you’re concerned you’re deficient in any vitamin, or want to start consuming more supplements, consult with a doctor or nutritionist who can help you figure out the best option for you.