Evidence-Based Nutrient Recommendations



by Jack Norris, RD


Essential Information

Selenium is involved in protection from oxidative damage, reproduction, DNA synthesis, and thyroid hormone metabolism. Selenium levels have been positively associated with greater bone mineral density (Hoeg, 2012).

Selenium is lacking in the soil in many countries and so a multivitamin with selenium is the most reliable source. Soil in the United States and Canada has enough selenium for vegans there not to be concerned.

Dietary Reference Intakes

U.S. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for Selenium
Upper Limit
0-6 mos 15 45
7-12 mos 20 60
1-3 20 90
4-8 30 150
9-13 40 280
14+ 55 400
Pregnancy 60 400
Breastfeeding 70 400

It’s best not to ingest more than the upper limit as long-term use of high amounts of selenium can cause health problems including hair and nail loss or brittleness, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and neurologic disorders (NIH, 2018).

Selenium Content of Plant Foods

The selenium content of plant foods depends on the amount of selenium in the soil the plants were grown in as well as on other factors including soil pH and fertilizer use (Rayman, 2012). The amount of selenium in soil varies by geographic location.

Brazil nuts are the food most high in selenium, on average, but they only grown in regions of South America where the soil content of selenium and conditions for selenium uptake by the nuts can vary widely (Alcântara, 2022). One study found that Brazil nuts grown in selenium-poor, non-acidic soils contained appreciable amounts of selenium, whereas nuts grown in selenium-poor, acidic soil contained low amounts of selenium (Silva Junior, 2017).

In the U.S and Canada, selenium intakes, even in areas with lower soil selenium, are generally adequate (Niskar, 2003; Kafai, 2003; Thompson, 1975). This is, at least in part, due to the food distribution system which usually makes it possible for even those living in areas with lower soil selenium to get enough selenium.

Most Americans get more than the RDA and over 99% of participants in a large survey of people in the U.S. had serum selenium in the normal range (Institute of Medicine, 2000).

Selenium values in food composition tables may or may not reflect the actual selenium content of foods eaten by an individual. For example, the USDA Food Composition Database reports that Brazil nuts have 544 micrograms of selenium per ounce but other sources report values ranging from 45 to 566 micrograms/ounce (Thomson, 2008; Parekh, 2008; USDA, 2018).

In addition to Brazil nuts, foods that are relatively high in selenium include whole grains (whole-wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, barley), brown rice, soy products, and beans.

The lowest selenium intakes in the world are in some parts of China where soil selenium is very low, while other regions of China have a very high soil selenium and high selenium intakes (Rayman, 2012). Areas of Europe also have low soil selenium (Rayman, 2012) although not as low as in China. New Zealand soil is low in selenium but selenium intakes are adequate because of the use of imported high-selenium wheat (Mangels, 2011).

Selenium Intakes and Status of Vegans

Summary: Vegans in the U.S. appear to have adequate intakes of selenium. Low intakes and lower blood concentrations have been reported in vegans and vegetarians in other areas of the world where soil selenium is low.

Vegans in the U.S. appear to have adequate intakes of selenium (Mangels, 2011).

Depending on food choices, vegans in Europe may have lower intakes of selenium. Lower soil selenium in European countries affects the selenium content of locally-grown grains, fruits, and vegetables.

In Denmark, both vegans and the general population had median selenium intakes that were lower than recommendations; the vegans had significantly lower selenium intakes than the general population (Kristensen, 2015).

One report found lower selenium status among UK vegans than among UK non-vegetarians (Judd, 1997). A more recent study in the U.K. found lower mean selenium intakes in lacto-ovo and lacto vegetarians compared to meat or fish eaters. Vegans’ mean selenium intakes were lower than those of meat and fish eaters but higher than lacto-ovo/lacto-vegetarians (Sobiecki, 2016). Almost half of vegan women and one-third of vegan men in the U.K. had selenium intakes below recommendations (Sobiecki, 2016).

In Finland, vegans had lower selenium intakes and lower blood selenium compared to non-vegetarians (Elorinne, 2016). Both groups, however, had selenium intakes that met or exceeded recommendations and serum selenium was in an acceptable range (Elorinne, 2016). Finland is unique in that it adds selenium to fertilizers (Alfthan, 2015).

A cross-sectional study from Germany comparing 36 sex and age-matched omnivores and vegans found no significant difference between median plasma selenium levels: 77 µg/l vs. 68 µg/l, respectively (Weikert, 2020). However, there was a significant difference in selenoprotein P levels which are more indicative of selenium status (omnivores: 5.0 mg/l; vegans: 3.3 mg/l). In comparing the vegans in Weikert et al. to the quintiles of women with higher fracture rates in Hoag et al., who found higher bone mineral density among women with higher selenium measurements, the vegans have low selenium plasma levels but adequate selenoprotein P levels. Weikert et al. didn’t provide reference ranges or selenium intakes.

A study from Sweden (Larsson, 2002) estimated selenium intakes and found them to be 10 µg/d (female) and 12 µg/d (male) for vegans compared to 27 µg/d (female) and 40 µg/d (male) for omnivores.

Last updated January 2019


Alcântara DB, Dionísio AP, Artur AG, Silveira BKS, Lopes AF, Guedes JAC, Luz LR, Nascimento RF, Lopes GS, Hermsdorff HHM, Zocolo GJ. Selenium in Brazil nuts: An overview of agronomical aspects, recent trends in analytical chemistry, and health outcomes. Food Chem. 2022 Mar 15;372:131207.

Alfthan G, Eurola M, Ekholm P, et al. Effects of nationwide addition of selenium to fertilizers on foods, and animal and human health in Finland: From deficiency to optimal selenium status of the population. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2015;31:142-7.

Elorinne AL, Alfthan G, Erlund I, et al. Food and nutrient intake and nutritional status of Finnish vegans and non-vegetarians. PLoS One. 2016 Feb 3;11(2):e0148235.

Hoeg A, Gogakos A, Murphy E, Mueller S, Köhrle J, Reid DM, Glüer CC, Felsenberg D, Roux C, Eastell R, Schomburg L, Williams GR. Bone turnover and bone mineral density are independently related to selenium status in healthy euthyroid postmenopausal women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Nov;97(11):4061-70.

Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Carotenoids. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000.

Judd PA, Long A, Butcher M, Caygill CP, Diplock AT. Vegetarians and vegans may be most at risk from low selenium intakes. BMJ. 1997 Jun 21;314(7097):1834.

Kafai MR, Ganji V. Sex, age, geographical location, smoking, and alcohol consumption influence serum selenium concentrations in the USA: third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994. J Trace Elem Med Biol 2003;17:13-8.

Kristensen NB, Madsen ML, Hansen TH, et al. Intake of macro- and micronutrients in Danish vegans. Nutr J. 2015 Oct 30;14:115.

Larsson CL, Johansson GK. Dietary intake and nutritional status of young vegans and omnivores in Sweden. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Jul;76(1):100-6.

Mangels R, Messina V, Messina M. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets, 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2011.

NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Selenium – Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Updated September 26, 2018.

Niskar AS, Paschal DC, Kieszak SM, et al. Serum selenium levels in the US population: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994. Biol Trace Elem Res 2003;91:1-10.

Parekh PP, Khan AR, Torres MA, Kitto ME. Concentrations of selenium, barium, and radium in Brazil nuts. J Food Comp Anal 2008; 21:332-335.

Rayman MP. Selenium and human health. Lancet 2012;379:1256-68.

Silva Junior EC, Wadt LHO, Silva KE, Lima RMB, Batista KD, Guedes MC, Carvalho GS, Carvalho TS, Reis AR, Lopes G, Guilherme LRG. Natural variation of selenium in Brazil nuts and soils from the Amazon region. Chemosphere. 2017 Dec;188:650-658.

Sobiecki JG, Appleby PN, Bradbury KE, Key TJ. High compliance with dietary recommendations in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Oxford study. Nutr Res. 2016 May;36(5):464-77.

Sobiecki JG. Vegetarianism and colorectal cancer risk in a low-selenium environment: effect modification by selenium status? A possible factor contributing to the null results in British vegetarians. Eur J Nutr. 2017 Aug;56(5):1819-1832.

Thompson JN, Erdody P, Smith DC. Selenium content of food consumed by Canadians. J Nutr. 1975 Mar;105(3):274-7.

Thomson CD, Chisholm A, McLachlan SK, Campbell JM. Brazil nuts: an effective way to improve selenium status. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Feb;87(2):379-84.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service, Nutrient Data Laboratory. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Legacy. Version Current: April 2018.

Weikert C, Trefflich I, Menzel J, Obeid R, Longree A, Dierkes J, Meyer K, Herter-Aeberli I, Mai K, Stangl GI, Müller SM, Schwerdtle T, Lampen A, Abraham K. Vitamin and Mineral Status in a Vegan Diet. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2020 Aug 31;117(35-36):575-582.

Also Reviewed

Higdon J. Selenium. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. Updated November 2014.

Stoffaneller R, Morse NL. A review of dietary selenium intake and selenium status in Europe and the Middle East. Nutrients. 2015 Feb 27;7(3):1494-537.

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