Meghan Lyons MS
Meat or no meat? If you follow a strict vegetarian diet, then you know very well that a meatless meal is your selection! But what you might not know is that choosing vegetarian may not always be as nutritionally balanced as you thought. Although excluding animal based foods does have its health advantages, certain nutrients may be low or missing in a diet that omits such items. Below is a list of key nutrients to watch out for when going vegetarian, and a few details on how dietary supplements can help.
Vitamin B12 – Beef, chicken, pork, fish (including shellfish), milk, eggs and cheese are the strongest sources of vitamin B12. Vegetarians who omit animal products from their usual diet are at a greater risk of low vitamin B12 since this key nutrient is not commonly present in plant-based foods. Vegetarians are often encouraged to consider supplementing with vitamin B12 to ensure adequate levels of this very important vitamin. Just how important is it? Well, vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of red blood cells, which are necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the body, and also helps support normal nervous system function.† B12 also supports the reactions that convert food into cellular energy.† Choosing a daily B12 supplement can be a convenient and worthwhile choice for ensuring adequate vitamin B12 levels.
Iron – Although iron is naturally found in plant source like spinach, soybeans, lentils and nuts, iron from animal sources tends to be more readily absorbed by the body. This is because animal-based iron is in a different form known as heme. Iron from plant sources is called non-heme iron. Also, heme iron is less affected by other dietary factors compared to non-heme iron. For example, a high intake of tea, coffee, calcium or foods rich in fiber is all known to decrease the absorption of non-heme iron. Heme iron is less affected by these factors. Since iron is critical for oxygen transport, energy metabolism and the synthesis of DNA, vegetarians who may be at risk of low iron may benefit from adding an iron supplement to their daily regimen.
Calcium – Like iron, the important bone-building mineral calcium is not void in a vegetarian diet. Bok choy, tofu, soy milk and broccoli are good sources of calcium and if consumed adequately can help meet one’s daily calcium requirement. However, some of the best sources of calcium are milk, cheese and yogurt – all of which are animal-based foods. If you follow a vegetarian diet and do not consume enough of the plant-based calcium sources, taking a daily calcium supplement is a great way to get an adequate intake of this very key mineral for strong bones and teeth.
So for all you vegetarians out there, keep this information in mind when planning your diet and focusing on your good health. Talk to your primary health care professional about what supplements you might consider taking to ensure optimal nutritional status!