I get letters

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I received the following e-mail and thought I’d post a response publicly in case others had a similar question. The e-mail (edited for readability):

I haven’t eaten meat or chicken in a year and its been a few months with out dairy. I wanted to know, do I have to take a vitamin? I eat very well. Fresh veggies and fruit, beans, rice, certain fish, soy, seeds and nuts, whole grains, organic teas. I just don’t really understand why people take fish oils? And do I need to be taking them? Do you know of a book that tells you what you need to eat or take and why?

Before I respond let me say this: I’m not a nutritionist and my “advice” is only a guideline. You should check with your doctor or nutritionist before acting on any of my advice. Phew. Now that I have the legal stuff out of the way…

First of all, congratulations on what sounds like a big step toward eating healthier. It certainly sounds like you’re eating healthier than most people! Without knowing exactly what vegetables you’re eating and in what balance, it would be hard for me to say whether you’d need a vitamin, but my general thought on the matter is that if you’re eating a good variety of healthy foods you’ll get the nutrients you need. Since you’ve cut dairy, you will want to make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin B12 either through a supplement, fortified foods (fortified soy milk is a great source), or by adding some Red Star nutritional yeast to your foods.

With regards to fish, the main reason people are encouraged to eat fish or take fish oil is for the omega-3 fatty acids. I won’t get into a long discussion of what those are, how they work, and why they’re important, but fish, flax seeds (which can be ground and added to foods), and nuts like walnuts are all good sources. Obviously, as a vegetarian, I’d recommend going for the flax seeds as your primary source of omega-3s, particularly with some of the other health concerns with eating too much fish (high mercury levels, etc.).

I would suggest checking out Virginia Messina‘s site and read through some of the questions regarding vegetarian health and nutrition. Virginia’s also written a book titled The Vegetarian Way: Total Health for You and Your Family that may have the answer to some of your questions. You may also find The Vegan Sourcebook and VRG’s Vegan & Vegetarian FAQ helpful.

2 Responses to “I get letters”

  1. Vic

    Apparently, fish oil supplements provide a n-3 fatty acid (DHA) that is not available from plant or grain sources. There has been a lot of news stories lately linking depression with low levels of DHA. Most of the articles recommended that people eat fish three times a week or take fish oil supplements.

    Fortunately, there is a vegan DHA that is derived from micro-algae and packaged in non-gelatin capsules. The brand is O-Mega-Zen3 .

    Unfortunately, there are no vegetarian DHA supplements available in Canada. O-Mega-Zen3 can only be purchased in the US.

  2. bob w

    I received a similar question on my blog (yes, shameless plug), and asked a friend of mine who is a nutrition consultant about this. The response is posted there, but in general the thinking these days is that trying to isolate a few missing chemical compounds and then making synthetic supplements (i.e. vitamins) is missing the big picture. The most nutritional and the best disease-fighting compounds in plants are phytochemicals which cannot be synthesized or isolated using today’s technology. Our health problems today are not because we are lacking one or 2 nutrients. It’s because our diets are lacking many nutrients. So it’s better to identify plant sources that are rich in a wide variety of phytochemicals. Examples include certain mushrooms, cactus, numerous others.

    So to summarize, trying to identify certain vitamins that we’re missing and then replace those with synthetic supplements does our immune system a dis-service. We need a wide variety of phytochemicals that can be sourced from various plants and mushrooms.

    This has nothing to do with the omega-3 discussion, on which topic I agree with the blogger and the other commenters. I referring to getting the wide variety of nutrients and phytochemicals that our immune system needs.

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