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Optimum Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans: Iron and Vitamin B12 Absorption
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Optimum Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans: Iron and Vitamin B12 Absorption

Optimum nutrition for vegetarians and vegans can be challenge. It doesn't have to be. However, many non-meat eaters mistakenly belief that simply being a vegan or vegetarian is good enough for excellent health. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poor eating habits and poor food preparation can cause serious health problems. Improperly nourished vegetarians are likely to suffer from low iron and vitamin B12 levels. By correctly preparing and understanding the nutrient content of food, vegetarians can get optimal nutrition.

There are easy ways to avoid suffering from the poor absorption of nutrients. Chemicals such as phytates block the absorption of iron, and to a lesser extent, zinc and calcium, increasing the chances of vegetarians developing anemia. The tannins in black teas and juices also interferes with the absorption of iron. Caffeine blocks the absorption of iron as well as calcium and B complex of vitamins. Drinks containing tannins and caffeine should not be consumed with meals.

Foods Containing Phytates:

Peanuts, kidney, pinto, navy and soy beans have nearly twice the amount of phytates. Mung beans, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, walnuts and peas have lower levels of phytates, and could be considered as a better alternative to ground nuts and soybeans. Potatoes retain most of their phytates whether boiled or baked. Whole wheat, corn, rye, oats, brown rice, and wheat bran all have varying levels of phytates.

Phytate in wheat is reduced by yeast, so eating whole wheat pastas and pizza should not be that much of a problem, unless of course you have an intolerance of wheat.

How to Prepare Food to Reduce Phytates:

The three ways to reduce phytates in foods are through soaking, sprouting and fermenting.


Soak beans, raw nuts, almonds, and rice in warm water for 24 hours, and reduce phytates levels by as much as 50%.


Lentils, peas, chickpeas, mung beans and soybeans can be sprouted to reduce the amount of phytates. Sprouting also increases the nutrient content of these foods.   Mung beans sprouted in semi-darkness are packed with more nutrients than those sprouted in total darkness.


Fermentation improves the nutrient quality of foods high in phytates. When brown rice is fermented most of the phytate is broken down, and the level of zinc is increased. Yeast fermentation in bread and other grain products reduces the level of phytates. Tempeh, which is made from fermented soy bean, wheat or other whole grains, is low in mineral blocking phytate. Foods can be fermented by using weak acids and lactic acid.

Foods that Improve the Absorption of Iron:

The absorption of iron is helped by Vitamin C. Foods that are rich in vitamin C are: citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower spinach, kale and watercress, guava, yellow peppers, strawberry, black current, and should be eaten as part of a balanced meal.

Probiotic Foods:

Yoghurt, Maas/Amasi, sour cream, sauerkraut, other fermented vegetables, Miso Soup, Kimchi, and fermented tea (Kombucha tea). Having good gut flora also helps in the absorption of iron. Probiotic bacteria and other friendly flora are an important source of the enzyme phytase that break down phytate into phosphorus. Brewers yeast is good digestive.

Vitamin B12:

Vitamin B12 availability and absorption is another concern for vegans and vegetarians. A lack of cobalamin (B12) can cause anemia, fatigue and depression. A long term deficiency in B12 can lead to problems of the central nervous system. Plant foods have little or no Vitamin B12. The main source of B12 is animal flesh. Dairy is another source of this very important vitamin.

Non-Meat sources of Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin):

In order of highest to lowest amount of cobalamin: Cheese, Eggs, Whey Powder Milk and Yogurt. Marmite is made from brewer's yeast and is a good source of B12. It is also high in purines, and should be avoided by people with gout, kidney disease, or arthritis.


Top and left to right: raitu, mixed nuts, Kimchi.

Bottom and left to right: sprouted beans, beans, green tea.

Pictures: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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  1. Veganara
    Excellent article, voted. I didn't know a lot of this stuff.
    1. Vin Chauhun
      Vin Chauhun
      Heyya Veganara, Yep....When I came across these facts ....I kinda had a mini-panic. then I read how we can get the maximum nutrients and I calmed down. The idea that the nutritional value of the food I was eating was being wasted by my system was a wake up call. Every person should have some form of probiotic to boost their digestive process--even a meat eater. I have already started changing the way I eat, so far so good :)
  2. Terry d'Selkie
    Great to know how to lower the phytates in foods. I am going to start sprouting my beans. Another way to make sure you are able to absorb all of the nutrients in beans is to soak them and then cook them with kombu or sweet kombu. You can find radiation free seaweed at I have B12 patches and get a B12 shot a couple of times a year. Being a vegan, I don't eat any foods high in B12, except wild ocean rinsed nori seaweed, which is high in B12 if harvested early in the season... thanks for the great information!


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