In a 2009 position paper, the American Dietetic Association -- now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- lists a number of nutrients that may be lacking even in well-planned vegetarian diets. Some of these nutrients are particularly important to women's health. If you are transitioning to a vegetarian diet, nutritional supplements can help you avoid deficiencies in these nutrients. Because of the risks of overconsumption and possible interactions with other medications you may be taking, consult with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
Many vegetarian foods are high in iron. These include beans, peas, soy products, seeds, nuts, whole-grain foods, dark molasses and green, leafy vegetables. However, the iron in these foods is non-heme, which is a form of this essential mineral that your body cannot easily absorb. As your iron needs are more than double those of a man, it is vital that you closely monitor your iron intake when switching to a vegetarian diet. In addition to taking supplements under your doctor's supervision, you can boost your daily intake by pairing iron sources with citrus fruits. The vitamin C and citric acid in these fruits increase your body's ability to absorb non-heme iron, thus helping you to avoid the weakness and fatigue associated with iron anemia.
Unlike iron, vitamin B-12 is not present in large amounts in many vegetarian foods. Eggs and dairy products are among the only examples, containing between 25 and 50 percent of your daily intake in one serving. However, these foods are not suitable for all vegetarian diets. To ensure that you are always eating a source of vitamin B-12, fortified foods are vital to your transition to vegetarianism. Some breakfast cereals, for example, contain as much as 50 to 100 percent of your daily intake. Taking a daily supplement can provide you with some freedom in your dietary choices and decrease the likelihood that you suffer from vitamin B-12 anemia, which has symptoms similar to those of iron anemia.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for vision, brain development and cardiovascular health. There are three major forms of this essential fatty acid: ALA, DHA and EPA. Flax and flaxseed oil are very high in ALA, while seaweed, fortified soymilk and fortified breakfast bars are good sources of DHA. There are no good dietary sources of EPA for vegetarians. However, your body can produce enough EPA if your ALA intake is adequate. A daily omega-3 supplement can ensure that you have enough ALA to do so. As fish oil is present in many of these, always read the label before purchasing to ensure that your omega-3 supplement is vegetarian-friendly.
Vitamin D and Calcium
Vitamin D and calcium are both essential to maintaining bone mass, building and repairing bones and avoiding osteoporosis. Although it is not a major issue among young women, your risk of developing osteoporosis increases dramatically after menopause. Regularly consuming dairy products is a great way to reduce your risk of these issues. If your vegetarian diet excludes dairy, you can also use fortified juices and dairy alternatives to help meet your daily needs of both nutrients. Exposing your skin to sunlight is another way to boost your vitamin D intake. Because of the importance of these nutrients for your long-term health, your doctor may advise you to take a combined vitamin D and calcium supplement if you do not regularly consume dairy. As calcium can interfere with your iron intake, make sure that you do not combine either dietary sources or supplements of these two important minerals.
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Iron
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin B12
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
- PubMed Health: Osteoporosis
Matthew Lee has been writing professionally since 2007. Past and current research projects have explored the effect of a diagnosis of breast cancer on lifestyle and mental health and adherence to lifestyle-based (i.e. nutrition and exercise) and drug therapy treatment programs. He holds a Master of Arts in psychology from Carleton University and is working toward his doctorate in health psychology.