For the vegetarian,
vitamins and other trace nutrients are of special concern. The
following information will help guide you toward a healthy
vegetarian diet complete with essential vitamins.
- is needed for red blood cell formation, growth, and a healthy
nervous system. Unfortunately, inadequate vitamin B12 absorption can
cause significant damage before symptoms occur so it's important that
anyone on a vegetarian diet get more than enough of this vitamin.
Vitamin B12 is found
primarily in meat, dairy products and eggs and is absent from plant
foods. With the vegetarian in mind, considerable research has looked into possible plant
sources of vitamin B12. Fermented soy products (such as miso and tempeh),
seaweed (kelp) and algae (spirulina) have all been proposed as
containing significant amounts of B12. However, the present consensus
is that any vitamin B12 present in plant foods is likely to be in a form
unavailable to humans - so these foods should not be relied upon as
Foods fortified with
B12 may be a good source in the vegetarian diet if you absorb oral
readily. Those foods would include fortified soy milk, breakfast
cereals, veggie burger mixes, nutritional yeast and herbal soft
drinks. Read labels carefully to ensure that you're getting the
daily requirement of this important vitamin.
Vegetarians who don't
consume dairy products or eggs (and some who do) may need to
supplement with vitamin B12. Sublingual B12 is the easiest version to
absorb, although some people
with absorption problems may require injections. Those
without absorption problems can usually get what they need with
multi-B vitamin supplements (read the label to make sure B12 is included).
It's a good idea for new
vegetarians to consult their physicians after the first 6 months to
have blood levels of vitamin B12 measured (and possibly iron, also) and to discuss possible absorption
Vitamin B2 - Riboflavin -
Studies have found that some vegetarians have a low intake of
riboflavin (B2). Vitamin B2 is important in converting protein, fats and
carbohydrates into energy, and for the synthesis and repair of body
tissues. Good sources of riboflavin include whole grains, mushrooms,
almonds, leafy green vegetables and nutritional yeast. The
vegetarian will be happy to know that vitamin B2 is
usually included in multi-B vitamin supplements.
Vitamin D - is needed for the absorption
of calcium and phosphate and necessary for healthy bones and teeth.
It's found in dairy products and margarine, which is a good way
for vegetarians to get enough of this vitamin. It's also produced by the
action of sunlight on the skin. The elderly, young children and
anyone confined indoors may need to consider a vitamin D
supplement especially if they are vegetarians who don't consume dairy products.
Iron - is a mineral that is an essential component
of hemoglobin (which transports oxygen in the blood through the
body). Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional
problems, regardless of the type of diet.
vegetarians are no more likely to develop iron deficiency than meat-eaters,
perhaps because they tend to be more aware of this issue. Iron is
found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, wholegrain bread, dried
fruit, pumpkin seeds and molasses. However, plant based iron (non-heme)
is not digested as well as iron coming from meat (heme).
Vitamin C supplementation can vastly improve absorption.
Iron-Rich Foods containing Non-Heme
(plant based) Iron:
Cooked beans and lentils
Baked potato with skin
The absorption of non-heme iron can be improved when foods
that enhance iron absorption are included in the same meal.
While some foods can
enhance iron absorption, others can inhibit or interfere with iron
absorption. Vegetarians should avoid eating inhibitors along with iron-rich foods
in order to maximize iron absorption.
supplements can also increase iron absorption for the vegetarian.
A daily iron
supplement can make things easy for those on a vegetarian diet.
Foods that Enhance
Foods that Inhibit Iron Absorption
- Fruit - oranges, orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries,
- Vegetables - broccoli, brussels sprouts, tomato, tomato
juice, potatoes, green and red peppers
- White wine
- Red Wine, coffee and tea
- Vegetables - spinach,
chard, beet greens, rhubarb and sweet potato
- Whole grains and bran
- Soy products
Calcium - is necessary for building and
maintaining strong bones and teeth, proper muscle contraction and blood
clotting. It's found in dairy products, leafy green vegetables, watercress,
tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, dried fruit, legumes and fortified soy
milk. Some breads and juices are fortified with calcium - it's
important that the vegetarian read
labels to determine how much.
Hard water can also provide significant amounts of calcium for the
Zinc - plays a role in a wide
range of enzyme systems and is essential for DNA metabolism and
growth. Vegetarian diets tend to contain less zinc than meat-based
diets. It's found in sesame and pumpkin seeds, green vegetables,
cheese, lentils and wholegrain cereals.
Iodine - is necessary for the production of
thyroid hormones important to metabolism. It's found in milk (used
as a disinfectant in milk production), kelp (seaweeds) and
seafood. The amount in plant foods depends upon how much is
available in the soil in which the plants were grown. The
prevalence of iodized salt makes iodine deficiencies rare.
Vegetarians on low-sodium and
all-natural diets (whole food products are often made with
non-iodized salt) may not be getting enough iodine.
Fatty Acids - There are two
essential fatty acids which must be supplied by the diet. These
are linoleic acid and a-linolenic acid. Essential fatty acids are
important for cell membrane function, cholesterol metabolism and
the synthesis of various metabolites. Good sources of essential
fatty acids are vegetable oils. It is important to have the
correct balance between linoleic acid and a-linolenic acid. It has
been suggested that vegetarians should use soybean or rapeseed
oils rather than sunflower or corn oils as these help give a
better dietary balance.
It's important to be aware of these 'vegetarian
vitamins', but don't let the fear of deficiencies keep you from
choosing a vegetarian diet. Planning and attention to meal
planning is important no matter what diet you choose. One
factor to be aware of is that no amount of good nutrition will
help if you're not digesting food properly.
can help your body make the most of what you eat. Now
that you're aware of the special vitamin needs of vegetarians, you
are well on your way to a healthy vegetarian diet. And
remember, a good multi-vitamin and mineral supplement can add
welcome insurance to you new vegetarian diet lifestyle.