The best vitamins and supplements for vegetarians: a simple guide
If you have made the decision to be a vegetarian, you are probably passionate about the environment, animal welfare, or your health. The amount of nutritional advice available for vegetarians can be overwhelming. But with the proper planning and precise supplementation, a plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients your body requires. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, a vegetarian diet can actually reduce the risk of chronic disease including heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.
We've created a simple outline of the best vitamins and supplements for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Continue reading to better understand the risks and limitations of plant-based diets, and learn which vitamins are harder for vegetarians to get. Then review your current diet, or consult with a physician to determine if supplementation may be necessary for you to avoid vitamin deficiency.
The vitamins missing from most vegetarian diets
Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are especially important for vegetarians to be familiar with because they are not found in plant-based foods, except those that are fortified.
Vitamin B12 is often thought of as a mood-boosting supplement. Like the other B vitamins, it is crucial for many critical processes. It is responsible for making new red blood cells, cell metabolism and DNA synthesis, as well as supporting brain function. While soy products and some nutritional yeasts contain B12, it is generally found in animal products.
A 2003 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed B12 deficiency in 92% of vegans who did not take supplements. The same study found that 77% of vegetarians who consumed milk and/or eggs, but did not supplement, were deficient in vitamin B12. Of the omnivores who participated in the same study, just 11% were deficient in vitamin B12.
While the study was small, it reveals the prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians and vegans. It is a strong sign that you should consider supplementing with vitamin B12 if eggs, fish and dairy are not a part of your diet.
Vitamin D is important for many important functions, supporting the regulation of hormones, maintaining immune function, and supporting calcium absorption for bone health. If your climate and lifestyle allow you to spend a lot of time in the sun, then you may be getting enough vitamin D. However, the likelihood is that you are not getting the recommended amount of vitamin D. A study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2009 estimated that 77% of US teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D.
Vegetarians have far fewer options for foods that contain vitamin D. Outside of dairy, fish, or eggs, vegetarians must rely on fortified grains and cereals as their primary food sources of vitamin D.
If you are concerned that you may not be getting enough vitamin D from food or exposure to the sun, consider taking vitamin D supplements. Be sure to look for vitamin D3, rather than D2. A 2012 study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that vitamin D3 is more effective at raising the blood levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D3 has become more popular in supplement form, but many foods are still fortified with vitamin D2.
Minerals can be easy to obtain on a vegetarian diet, especially if you love to pile vegetables on your plate. Daily doses of leafy greens like spinach, chard, kale, and seaweeds can help you meet your mineral needs. But if you don’t have Popeye’s palate, mineral supplements can help. Calcium and zinc are the two main minerals every vegetarian needs to be aware of.
Calcium is a mineral that depends on vitamin D to be properly absorbed. Calcium is particularly important to maintain healthy bones throughout your life. Even if you are an avid eater-of-greens, you should consider calcium supplementation. This is especially true if you drink a lot of coffee or green tea, as caffeine has been shown to interfere with calcium absorption.
The best foods for vegetarians that contain calcium include dairy, turnips, and leafy greens.
Your body uses zinc, another essential mineral, for supporting immune function and cell metabolism. The cells of your entire body depend on zinc to replicate, regulate, differentiate, and proliferate. As a component of more than 300 active enzymes, zinc plays a role in basically everything that cells do. Dosage is vitally important with all minerals, but special care should be taken not to overdo it with zinc. Zinc is known to interfere with the absorption of other minerals, such as iron and copper.
The best foods for vegetarians that contain zinc include nuts, seeds, beans, and dairy.
Iron is an essential mineral that helps red blood cells transport oxygen and nutrients to the body's cells. Heme iron comes from animal sources, and non-heme iron is found in plants.
Vegetarians can get non-heme iron from a diet rich in vegetables. However, non-heme iron isn’t as readily absorbed by the body. A routine blood test can reveal if you’re getting enough iron. If your blood levels of iron are low, then supplementing can help.
Be careful not to exceed the daily recommended amounts of iron. Too much of it can lead to negative effects including nausea and vomiting.
Other considerations: omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are also widely studied for their benefits to vegetarians. Vegetarians are shown to be low in these essential fatty acids. One popular and potent source of omega-3s is fish oil. Fortunately for those vegetarians that avoid fish altogether, there are totally vegan sources of omega-3s.
Flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, olive oil, and walnuts are all rich sources of omega-3 fats. Algae oil is a vegan-friendly source of DHA and EPA. Algae actually originate the DHA and EPA that continues up the food chain to shellfish and fish.
The average American diet contains between ten and 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. Though you should consume more omega-3 than omega-6 fats, the ideal ratio still isn’t known. Generally, lowering your omega-6 intake while increasing omega-3s will lead to better health. A simple way to achieve this is to increase your use of healthy oils like olive, avocado, and coconut.
The three forms of omega-3s fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for a variety of biological functions. They are primarily known for their benefits to heart, joint, metabolic and cognitive health.
There are three main kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential nutrient, because the body cannot produce it. Luckily, this oil is in plants such as leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. The other important omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA are commonly found in animal products. DHA is also found in high amounts in seaweed. The body can synthesize them EPA and DHA from ALA, if it is available in large amounts.
Dr. Jeff Gladd, an integrative physician, says, “While the body can convert the plant-based ALA into the more anti-inflammatory EPA and DHA, it does so with great limitation. It is estimated that only 5-6% of ALA can be converted, so a lot of flaxseed oil would need to be used to replace that from fish. For this reason, fish oil is the priority. If this is not a consideration, then opt for DHA sourced from seaweed or consider krill oil as it contains both EPA and DHA.”
Personalized nutrition tips for vegetarians
No two vegetarian diets are exactly alike. Every aspect of your lifestyle, not just your dietary preferences, can influence what supplements you should take. It’s important to be thoughtful about your daily nutrition, as vitamin deficiencies can have long-lasting effects.
You can consult a physician to ensure you’re taking the right vitamins and supplements to complement your diet and lifestyle. For nutrients like vitamin D and iron, a blood test may be necessary.