How to get Zinc, Iron, and B12 Each Day

Vegetarians require as much as 50% more zinc as carnivores for optimum health. Some food preparation techniques reduce the action of phytates and increase zinc bioavailability. For example, soak legumes, grains and seeds in water for several hours before cooking so that sprouts form, and/or choose more grains that use leavening (anything with yeast, baking soda, or baking powder to make it rise) because leavening partially breaks down phytates

How much zinc do I need? The RDA for zinc for women age 19+ is 8mg per day and for men age 19+ is 11mg per day. If you’re pregnant you need 11 mg zinc per day, and 12 mg zinc when breastfeeding. If you don’t eat any animal products that are high in zinc (beef, crab, lobster, oysters, pork, chicken) on a regular basis, then increase your daily zinc intake by 50%. That means 12mg zinc per day for women and 16.5mg zinc per day for men who eat a primarily plant-based diet. If you’re pregnant, aim for 16.5 mg zinc and 18 mg when breastfeeding.

Meat, seafood and poultry contain both heme and nonheme iron, while plants contain only nonheme iron. Heme iron from meat is more absorbable than nonheme iron from plants. Vitamin C increases the absorption of nonheme iron, but once again phytates decrease the absorption. The RDA for iron for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than people who eat meat because of these absorption issues.

How much iron do I need? If you don’t regularly consume animal sources that are good sources of iron (oysters, beef liver, sardines, beef, dark meat chicken) then increase your daily iron by 1.8 times:  32 mg for women age 19-50 and 14 mg for men age 19 and older and women age 50 and older. If you’re pregnant, aim for 48 mg of iron and when breastfeeding 16 mg of iron. 

Women age 19-50 need 18 mg iron per day.
Men age 19-50 need 8 mg iron per day.
Women and men age 50+ need 8 mg iron per day.
Iron needs increase to 27 mg during pregnancy and 9 mg when breastfeeding.

B12 bioavailability appears to be about three times higher in dairy products than in meat, fish, and poultry, and the bioavailability of vitamin B12 from dietary supplements is about 50% higher than that from food sources.  

How much B12 do I need? Men and women age 19 and over need 2.4 mcg of B12 per day. B12 needs increase to 2.6 mcg during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg when breastfeeding. Since Vitamin B12 is not naturally present in any plants, if you don’t regularly consume animal products you’ll need to include fortified nutritional yeast or other foods that often contain added B12 such as breakfast cereal, plant milks (for example almond, soy and rice milk often contain added B12) and foods marketed toward vegans. 

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC


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