Wednesday, January 18


So today, after recieving the results of some blood tests related to an ongoing illness, I was once again told of my excellent iron and vitamin B12 levels. As always, this got me thinking about the belief that seems to be held by our society that vegetarians, and especially vegans, must have to take vitamin and mineral supplements because their diet is obviously lacking in nutrients. I have to say once and for all that, in my experience, that is absolutely not true! I have been vegetarian for almost 5 years and, due to unrelated medical issues, I have been having regular blood tests for almost that entire time. Never have I had a deficiency of any kind.

Though many people think that vegetarians need to take vitamin and mineral supplements to stay healthy (even many vegetarians!), in my experience, this is just untrue. Eating a balanced vegetarian diet should provide you with ample nutrients. The only thing that vegetarianism eliminates from the diet is meat and meat by-products and these do not contain any nutrients that cannot also be found in vegetarian foods, especially in dairy and eggs as they are animal derived. I cannot speak on the necessity for supplements in a vegan diet, as I am not vegan, but I would assume that a focused and educated individual could live very well on a vegan diet without supplements.

The main mineral that people seem to think that vegetarians miss out on is iron. This is untrue as the foods highest in iron are mostly vegetarian, and of those that aren't, I doubt they are included in many non-vegetarians' diets.
For example, a quick Google search gave me a list of top 10 foods highest in iron. The list was as follows:
1. Dried thyme
2. Cocoa powder, unsweetened, and dark chocolate
3. Liver
4. Clams, oysters, and mussels
5. Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds
6. Tahini and sesame seeds
7. Caviar
8. Sun-dried tomatoes
9. Sunflower seeds
10. Dried apricots
Another site also has some pretty comprehensive lists of food high in iron, separated into grains, vegetables etc and almost all of these are vegetarian. Therefore, it is a myth that vegetarians are at risk of developing an iron deficiency. Iron supplements should not be needed in any diet, non-vegetarian, vegetarian, or vegan. Iron deficiency is caused by bad diet or medical conditions, not by lack of meat. Also, iron supplements have a tendancy to cause constipation and can, in my anecdotal experience, turn your poo a vivid shade of green. This would undoubtedly lead to amusement in the circles I travel in but constipation, on the other hand, is not fun.

It is important to note that vitamin C plays a vital role in the iron absorption process and that many non-vegetarians (and some vegetarians for that matter!) do not eat enough vitamin C rich foods. This means that of any iron being eaten, much is not absorbed. In an organized and structured fashion that gives me much more joy than it should, the aforementioned website has many lists of top 10 foods to find different nutrients in. Ah lists, categorization, and ranking, how I love thee. One of these lists is on vitamin C rich foods and I thought that since we are on the subject, I should share them with you and pose the question, are you eating these? Because if you're relying on orange juice I'm afraid you might be in for some problems. The list is:
1. Red and green hot chilli peppers
2. Guavas
3. Bell peppers (capsicum to us Australian folk)
4. Fresh thyme and parsley
5. Dark leafy greens (eg kale, mustard greens, garden cress)
6. Broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts
7. Kiwi fruit
8. Papaya (AKA pawpaw)
9. Citrus fruits (though probably not the juice you buy at the supermarket)
10. Strawberries
So, you probably don't eat as many of those foods as you should, do you? I'm actually worried now that I'm not eating enough of them...

Many foods such as bread and cereals are also iron enriched. When I was in primary school we did a good experiment for this, blending up some breakfast cereal and then stirring it with magnets. Literally, iron filings were pulled from the cereal by the magnets. This is not to say anything against the companies that do it because unless bound within a living thing, ie plants, animals, and fungi, one of the only ways to add iron to the diet is to add iron filings.

The second nutrient often lacking in an unbalanced vegetarian diet is vitamin B12. This is little known in the public conciousness and probably poses a greater risk to vegetarians because of that. Many people just starting to live a vegetarian lifestyle are not aware that vitamin B12 deficiency is something  they should be aware of. I have heard that vitamin B12 is particularly difficult for vegans to incorporate into their diet as it is very difficult to find in much abundance in non-animal foods. Indeed the website with the top ten list of iron rich  and vitamin C rich foods mentioned above also has one for vitamin B12 rich foods (yay! How very comprehensive!), their list is:
1. Clams, oysters, and mussels
2. Liver
3. Caviar
4. Octopus
5. Fish
6. Crab and lobster
7. Beef
8. Lamb and mutton
9. Cheese
10. Eggs
As you can see, only two of these are vegetarian, and none are vegan. As part of a balanced diet, vegetarians should get enough vitamin B12 but it is something to be aware of. The next best vegetarian source of vitamin B12 after dairy and eggs (and probably one of the best vegan sources) is Vegemite and similar yeast spreads, such as Marmite. And really, how hard is it to have some Vegemite on toast for breakfast every once in a while?

So in conclusion, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, unless caused by an underlying medical condition, are the result of an unbalanced diet. Take a look at your diet and see if you should perhaps be eating more of the above mentioned foods!

Happy eating :)

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