Written by Meredith Binder while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group
The simple answer to this question is no. The general consensus among experts in the field of nutrition is that it’s much better, and healthier, for us to receive our nutrients from the foods that we eat rather than from a daily vitamin. This means that a balanced diet filled with vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fortified foods will supply us with enough of the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Therefore, there’s really not a need to spend money on multi-vitamins and minerals. However, for some situations, there may be a need to take supplements for one or more specific nutrients. This is discussed in more detail below as it pertains to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Foods that are fortified are those that have vitamins and minerals added to them, which are usually not found in these foods. Examples of plant-based foods that may be fortified are breads, cereals, juices, non-dairy milk beverages, and certain meat analogues. Since there are so many fortified foods available to us, there’s actually the possibility of exceeding the amount of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need when taking a multi-vitamin in addition to eating regular meals. When this happens, the money we spent on multi-vitamins goes down the toilet, literally, as our body will excrete most vitamins (the ones that are water-soluble) when it’s reached the amount that it needs. And although it is rare, the vitamins that our bodies do store (like vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin) can be harmful if you get too much of them.
All of that being said, vegetarians and vegans do need to make sure that they receive enough of certain vitamins and minerals, just as someone on a meat-based diet does. Some of these that are especially important for teenagers include iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
Iron is very important during adolescence because it supports the growth spurts that occur during this period of life. Vegetarians and vegans actually need to consume more iron than omnivores because our bodies don’t absorb as much iron from plant-based sources as they do from animal sources. Many vegetarian foods are good sources of iron. Male vegetarian teens should consume about 20 mg of iron per day and female vegetarian teens should consume 27 mg of iron per day. Click here for more information on iron and plant-based sources of this nutrient: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php.
Calcium is especially important for teenagers because not only do you grow a lot during this time but you also start accruing your peak bone mass. In fact, half of our maximum bone mass is accumulated during our teen years. Vitamin D is also important for healthy and strong bones. Teens need 1300 mg of calcium each day and 15 mcg (or 600 IU) of vitamin D each day. Click here for more information on calcium http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.php and here for more information on vitamin D http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue2/2009_issue2_vitamin_d.php.
As mentioned, teens grow a significant amount during this time in their lives, and another vitamin, vitamin B12, is very important as it is needed for healthy cell division. Teens need 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day. Click here for more information on vitamin B12: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/b12.php
Although lacto-ovo vegetarians have been found to have adequate intakes of calcium and vitamin B12 through diet alone, vegans and others may want to consider taking supplements specifically for these nutrients if they are not able to meet their needs through their normal diet. Vegetarians and vegans may want to consider taking a supplement for iron and/or vitamin D if they are not receiving enough of these nutrients. If you’re concerned about receiving enough of any of these nutrients, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. Overall, you most likely do not need a daily multi-vitamin and mineral but possibly need a specific nutrient supplement.
If you feel that you’re not receiving proper nutrition through your diet for any reason, then you might want to consider taking a daily multi-vitamin or supplement. However, you should first consider talking to a nutrition expert, such as a registered dietitian, who may be able to give you advice on how to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into your meals. Vitamin pills should never replace foods especially because they don’t contain fiber or the phytonutrients (substances found in plants) that are only present in foods. If you do end up shopping for a daily multi-vitamin and mineral, you can begin by looking for ones that say “vegetarian” or “vegan” on the packaging. Keep in mind that even if they state this on the box or bottle, you should still further investigate the packaging by looking at the “supplement facts” which is similar to a “nutrition facts” label that you find on food packages. Here are some points to keep in mind when you’re shopping for vitamins or supplements:
- A lot of daily multi-vitamins and minerals do not have iron included in them. Always check the “supplement facts” label to see if iron is listed. Some vitamins may also promote “with iron” on their packaging which indicates that they do have iron.
- Check the “supplement facts” label for the type of vitamin D that is used. Vitamin D-3, sometimes written on labels as cholecalciferol, is often made from lanolin, a waxy substance that comes from sheep’s wool. Though the animal is not killed for lanolin, it is considered an animal product so vegans may want to be cautious of this. Vitamin D-2, sometimes on labels as ergocalciferol, is from yeast, so it is completely vegan. I have seen multi-vitamins labeled as “vegetarian” that use the D-3 form, since lanolin would be vegetarian, though not vegan.
- Check the actual daily percentages of the vitamins and minerals that are included, which are found on the “supplement facts” labels. Just because a package of daily multi-vitamin and minerals claims, in big bold letters, to have all of the essential vitamins and nutrients that you need does not mean that it actually does. I have seen supplements that claim this and then only contain 1% of the daily-recommended value of calcium and absolutely no iron.
The contents of this article, our website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.