Do Vegetarians Need to Take Supplements As Part of a Diet?

Supplements aren’t ideal, but they may be worth considering if your circumstances are such that the benefits of taking a supplement outweigh the risks.

Though you can easily get enough iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and zinc from plant foods, in some instances, a supplemental boost of one or more of these may be merited if you aren’t getting enough from the foods you choose.

If you’re healthy, your body should generally be able to adapt to varying dietary conditions, absorbing more of a particular nutrient when you need more and absorbing less when you need less. If you get enough calories to meet your energy needs and you eat a reasonable variety of wholesome foods but your diet alone isn’t enough to keep nutrients at normal levels in your body, a more complicated problem is likely the culprit.

Another time when a nutritional supplement may be recommended is during pregnancy. I discuss the use of prenatal supplements in Chapter 19. Vegetarians aren’t more likely than nonvegetarians to need prenatal supplements, but some people mistakenly think that women who don’t eat meat when they’re pregnant miss out on vital nutrients. This isn’t so, but if you’re pregnant or planning to get pregnant, your healthcare provider may still recommend a prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of vitamin B12 for vegans, vegetarians aren’t more prone than meat eaters to develop nutritional deficiencies. Vegetarians can generally get the nutrition they need from foods. They don’t need supplements unless they have reason to believe that their intake isn’t sufficient or that an underlying health problem is causing a nutrient imbalance.

Not all health professionals are equally familiar with vegetarianism and qualified to counsel vegetarians about their diets. If you do need help sorting out the pros and cons of vitamin and mineral supplementation, seek out a registered dietitian who’s knowledgeable about vegetarian diets. A registered dietitian is a food and nutrition expert who has met specific criteria for education and experience as set forth by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, has passed a national registration exam, and has completed continuing education requirements. Search online for a registered dietitian who practices in your geographic area and has expertise in vegetarian nutrition by going to the American Dietetic Association Web site

In addition, the National Academy of Sciences recommends that certain groups take supplements, whether they’re vegetarian or not. Specifically, the academy recommends that all adults over the age of 50 take a vitamin B12 supplement to ensure that they’re getting enough. The academy also recommends that women in their childbearing years take a folic acid supplement. Research suggests that folic acid supplementation may help prevent neural tube defects, and many women have difficulty reaching the recommended level of 400 micrograms of folic acid per day. Vegetarian women can take a bow, though: Their folic acid intakes are typically much higher than those of nonvegetarians.

By Laura