Do Vegetarians Need Supplements? A Brief Overview of Vegetarian Nutrition
Regardless of what type of diet you follow, it is absolutely paramount– and sometimes challenging- to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from the food and beverage you consume.
However, in the case of a vegetarian diet, people tend to be a bit more concerned as to whether or not the diet provides a complete list of nutrients. Some believe that it is low on protein. Others say that the diet is low on important fat, such as omega-3 fatty acids.
With all of the conflicting information available on the internet and by word of mouth, understanding what is and isn’t true about vegetarianism can be quite challenging.
To aid you as you explore the possibilities of vegetarianism, let’s take a look at which nutrients a vegetarian diet does– and does not– provide enough of.
All in all, you’ll find that a vegetarian diet, when done right, is very healthy and provides great health benefits.
What does it mean to be a vegetarian?
Before we begin exploring whether or not vegetarians need supplements, it’s important to understand what it means to be a vegetarian.
In simple terms, a vegetarian diet is one that usually omits any and all red meat, game, poultry, fish, or by-products of animals, such as the common ingredient gelatin.
Rather than eating these foods, vegetarians typically eat a diet of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, grains, and other plant-based options. However, rather than looking at vegetarianism as a specific type of diet, think of it as a category of diet types that are similar in restriction. A few types of vegetarian diets include:
Vegan: Omits any and all animal-derived products from the diet (including eggs and honey)
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Consists of both dairy products and eggs (most common vegetarian diet)
Ovo-vegetarian: Consists of eggs but omits dairy products
Lacto-vegetarian: Consists of dairy products but omits eggs
Do vegetarians need to take supplements?
Truthfully, as long as you plan properly and have a clear understanding of what a well-balanced vegetarian diet looks like, you should be able to get all the nutrients your body needs without the need for any further supplementation.
However, if you don’t plan properly, you could suffer from a lack of essential nutrients. While a vegetarian diet supplies a full range of essential nutrients, there are some nutrients that you should be more mindful of so you don’t miss out on them. According to research results found by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the main nutrients of concern for the vegetarian are omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iron, and iodine. Taking supplements could aid in preventing potential malnutrition, but the first step of action should be to ensure that your diet is complete. Let’s take a look at these nutrients that you may possibly need to supplement on a vegetarian diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Numerous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids are very beneficial for your health. These healthy fats aid in decreasing the risk of heart disease, lowering blood pressure, helping with inflammatory diseases, and even protecting against depression. While there are other foods that provide this nutrient, fish is indeed the most popular source of omega-3. As a vegetarian, you’ll have to find omega-3 fatty acids in other food sources. Some of the best vegetarian sources of this nutrient include flaxseed/flaxseed oil, olive oil, soybean oil, hemp oil, soybeans, and walnuts.
Vitamin B12 is vital for many bodily functions, especially in relation to your brain and central nervous system. It aids in red blood cell growth and maintenance of the nervous system. Since this nutrient is found almost exclusively in animal foods, it can be a bit of a challenge for vegetarians to meet their vitamin B12 needs. When you go too long without vitamin B12, you risk many complications such as heart palpitations, numbness, memory loss, and more. If you’re a traditional vegetarian, you can get your vitamin B12 from eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products. If you’re following a more restrictive vegetarian diet, such as a vegan diet, you can get vitamin B12 in your diet by either taking a supplement or eating vitamin B12-fortified vegan foods. Some examples of B12-fortified foods include vegan cheeses and milk, yeast extract, soy products, and some breakfast cereals.
This nutrient is essential in helping your body absorb the calcium you eat. It is also important for the development and maintenance of strong bones. Foods that contain lots of vitamin D include dairy products, egg yolks, and certain fish. On a vegetarian diet, some of these vitamin D sources may be avoided, making it harder to meet vitamin D needs. While your skin cells naturally make vitamin D when exposed to UV rays from the sun, there are still many people turning out deficient in vitamin D due to modern indoor lifestyles. To ensure you’re meeting your daily vitamin D requirements, try drinking fortified orange juice and soy milk or eating foods such as mushrooms or tofu. If all else fails, try taking a vitamin D supplement.
As you may well know, calcium is an important nutrient for strong bones and overall health, including your blood’s clotting abilities (which is necessary for injuries). In a traditional diet, calcium is mostly found in milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt. Depending on what kind of vegetarian diet you’re adopting, it may be difficult to meet your calcium needs. If you still consume dairy products, calcium shouldn’t be much of a concern for you. However, if you’ve decided to avoid dairy products, try adding other calcium sources such as chickpeas, dried figs, broccoli, enriched whole-wheat bread, and calcium-fortified soy cheese or cereal to your diet. If you add these foods to your diet, a calcium supplement may not be necessary.
Zinc is essential for a healthy metabolism, immune system, and the body’s healing capabilities. Many animal-based foods are high in zinc, including meat, seafood, and other animal products. While it is also found in many plant-based foods, the zinc found in these foods tends to have a lower absorption level in the body. Therefore, as you enjoy a vegetarian diet, it is important to eat a variety of zinc-providing foods such as whole grains, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and eggs and dairy, if allowed in your diet. If you don’t believe you can sustain a diet with healthy zinc levels, it may be wise to use a multivitamin-mineral supplement as well.
Iron is a mineral that vegetarians should be mindful of. While plant-based foods can be high in iron, the iron in these foods is usually less easily absorbed compared to animal-based foods, like meat for instance. Dairy is also a poor source of iron, so unless you consume lots of eggs, it may be hard to consume enough iron in your diet. Therefore, aim to eat larger amounts of iron-containing foods, such as whole grains, greens, and legumes. If you’re concerned about not getting enough iron, opt for a multivitamin-mineral that includes iron, especially if you already have an iron deficiency or heavy menstrual cycles.
Seafood and iodized table salt are rich sources of iodine, so this nutrient is not much of a concern for those following a traditional diet. However, if you’re following a vegetarian diet and do not use iodized table salt much, you should be mindful to make sure you’re consuming enough of this important nutrient. Iodine is needed for the body to make thyroid hormones (which control the body’s metabolism) as well as for healthy bone and brain development during infancy. To ensure you’re meeting healthy levels of iodine in your diet, try using table salt or eating more plant foods grown in iodine-rich soil. Another great option is to add seaweed to your diet, which is a very good source of iodine. As long as you implement one of these options into your diet, you shouldn’t need to talk a supplement.
While there are several factors to be mindful of as you consider a vegetarian diet, this is not meant to scare you away. In fact, it is meant to serve as a guide as you prepare for your diet– and lifestyle– changes. When you eat a vegetarian diet, it teaches you to be more aware of what you put in your body, and not just on a caloric level. By understanding what nutrients are important for your health and how to ensure you consume them in healthy levels, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a healthy vegetarian diet. Remember, you can get all of the nutrients above from a healthy and complete vegetarian diet. However, if you have any cause for concern, try supplementing your diet with a multivitamin-mineral.