Many people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for ethical reasons such as preventing cruelty towards animals. Some people become vegetarians because the production of animal products for food is bad for the environment. Others choose the vegetarian diet for health reasons.
Whatever the reason…
About 10% of the population in the western world are some form of vegetarian or vegan and that number is climbing.
A vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients that the body needs to be healthy, but there are certain nutrients that need extra attention to ensure that you are getting the amounts that your body requires.
Generally, vegetarians and vegans cut out the consumption of animal proteins from their diets, however, there are different variations of vegetarians and vegans who define their eating preferences. For example:
- Pescatarian – a vegetarian who eats fish
- Lacto-vegetarian – a vegan who eats dairy
- Ovo-vegetarian – excludes all animal products except eggs
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarian – both eggs and dairy are permitted
- Pollotarian – only poultry is allowed
- Fruitarians – eat only fruits, nuts and seeds
- Vegan –won’t eat any animal product (including honey).
- Flexitarians – people who rarely eat fish and meat
The type of vegetarian a person is will determine which nutrients they have to focus on to ensure they are meeting their body’s daily needs. This article will walk you through a number of essential nutrients that vegetarians need to be mindful of in order to maintain a balanced and healthy diet.
The 9 Key Nutrients Every Vegetarian Needs to be Healthy
There are many plant-based sources of protein.
If you are a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian (who eats eggs and dairy) it is easy to get enough protein in your diet. But if you don’t eat eggs or dairy it is simple to swap out meat proteins with the plant proteins, you just need to do the research before you get started.
Taking the meat out of your diet without substitutions in place first can leave you feeling empty and frustrated. Don’t let becoming a vegetarian be an excuse to load up unnecessarily on carbohydrates and fats. Come up with a healthy meal plan before you switch to a plant-based diet.
Vegetarian sources high in protein include beans, legumes, nuts, soy, milk, eggs, cheese, seeds, cereal, tofu, tempeh, cottage cheese, and whole grains. Then consider the rest of your diet. Eat vegetables and fruits with colors across the rainbow. Many vegetables are actually very high in protein contents, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and other leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables.
Vegetarians need to make sure they are getting enough “complete proteins”. Your body needs amino acids from complete proteins. The best way to get complete protein is by eating a wide selection of foods in order to get a variety of amino acids. Nine essential amino acids have to come from food, your body can’t make them. Protein supplements may also be necessary depending on how active you are.
Adding protein to a meal will keep your blood sugar steady and will keep you fuller for longer. Studies show that this helps with weight loss.
The following are some great protein sources for vegetarians (and meat-eaters too).
If looking for a convenient, 100% plant-based protein that delivers unbelievable taste, texture and is cholesterol-free with less saturated fat than traditional meat — check out Gardein! The meatless meatballs are my fave! (see spaghetti and meatballs below — made with zero-carb pasta, marinara, and meatless meatballs… super keto and delicious!)
Beans are some of the best sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans.
There are ways to eat combinations of foods so that you are getting complete proteins. You need different amino acids in a variety of foods and food combinations.
Beans and nuts are not complete proteins the ways eggs and meat are. So, when looking for protein sources, look for recipes that have combinations of proteins that become complete proteins.
Serving rice and beans together creates a meal that has the same quality of essential amino acids as meat. Many vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy and get all the essential amino acids that way.
Beans contain 14 grams of protein in a 1 cup serving, on average.
Tofu, Edamame, and Tempeh
Soybeans make tofu, edamame, and tempeh. Soybeans have the same essential amino acids as meat. They are considered complete proteins.
Edamame is not yet fully developed soybeans. They are served boiled or steamed and are often added to salads and soups. Both tofu and tempeh are used as meat substitutes in many different ways. Tofu, edamame, and tempeh all contain calcium, iron and the same amount of protein as meat.
Edamame is a great source of vitamin K, fiber and folate. Tempeh provides B vitamins, phosphorus, magnesium, and probiotics.
Listed below are some excellent sources of protein with the amount of protein in a 1 cup serving size:
- Buckwheat 6 g
- Cooked spinach 7 g
- Non-dairy milk 7 g
- Green peas 8 g
- Quinoa 8 g
- Oatmeal 12 g
- Beans 14 g
- Edamame 17 g
- Lentils 18 g
- Tofu 20 g
- Tempeh 30 g
#2. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products only. Lack of vitamin B12 can cause anemia, which is when your blood doesn’t have sufficient red blood cells. Too little B12 can also cause you to produce not enough hemoglobin. Your cells will not be getting enough oxygen if there is a problem with red blood cells or hemoglobin.
Lack of B12 can cause tingling, numbness and muscle weakness. In more severe cases, B12 deficiency can cause blindness.
Our absorption of vitamin B12 slows as we age. As much as 15% of the population is vitamin B12 deficient. A doctor can do a simple blood test to look for vitamin B12 deficiency.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
- Feelings of “pins and needles”
- Pale skin
- Eye problems
The brain, blood cells, nerves and other parts of the human body require vitamin B12 for proper functioning. Your body uses B12 to get oxygen to your organs with red blood cells. If you are not getting the proper amount of oxygen to your cells it’s going to make you tired, no matter the time of day or how much sleep you got the night before.
Adults need 2.4 mcg a day. The best dietary sources of vitamin B12 are dairy products, eggs, fish, meat and poultry. If you are not getting enough animal products, try B12 fortified grains included in many breakfast portions of cereal.
Some prescription drugs react with B12 supplements, so check with your doctor before taking them.
Iron from red meat is the easiest for the body to absorb so vegetarians have to make due with other foods and supplements.
The iron that comes from plant-based food is called nonheme iron. Good sources of nonheme iron are beans, tofu, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, broccoli, spinach, pasta, and bread.
Without enough iron in your diet, you will develop iron – deficiency anemia. Your body won’t make enough hemoglobin if you don’t get sufficient iron. Much like B12 deficiency, if you are not getting enough iron you will become anemic. Symptoms of anemia are headaches, weakness, cold hands and feet, dizziness, low body temperature, and pale skin. Anemia can cause heart-related symptoms such as arrhythmia and chest pain.
Nonheme iron is harder for your body to absorb. Nonheme iron is what is put in most foods that are iron-fortified. Our bodies do not absorb nonheme iron as well as the regular iron that is in animal products.
If you are not getting enough iron from your food, it’s best to take an iron supplement. Talk to a doctor first to find out how much iron you should be taking. Cut down on coffee and tea if you are trying to improve iron absorption. Iron absorbs best in the human body when it was paired with Vitamin C.
It is rare but possible to overdose when taking iron supplements. Adults should never have more than 45 mg a day.
People usually get zinc from red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vegetarian and vegan sources for zinc include beans, cashews, almonds, whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereals. The zinc that comes from animal products is the easiest form of zinc for the body to absorb, but the body can still absorb plant-based zinc. Consuming foods like sourdough bread, yeast-based bread, pre-soaked legumes, and sprouts can improve zinc absorption.
Meat has the best bioavailability of zinc. Bioavailability is the amount of a substance, such as a vitamin or a mineral, that is absorbed into the body enough so that it will be effective. Vegetarians get their zinc through sources that have less bioavailability. Vegetarians require nearly 50% more zinc in their diet as meat-eaters.
If you eat seafood, try oysters because they provide the best form of zinc. There is 74 mg of zinc per 3 ounces serving. About 25% of older adults are deficient in zinc.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Lowered immunity
- Hair loss
- Weight loss
- Impaired mental functioning
- Poor wound healing
Both men and women need between 8 and 11 mg of zinc a day. Adults should not get more than 40 mg of zinc a day.
Here are some of the health benefits attributed to zinc:
- Zinc is an antioxidant that helps your body fight off diseases such as cancer.
- Zinc also promotes eye health and improves a serious disease called age-related macular degeneration.
- Zinc improves your immune function and is often taken to prevent and treat colds.
- Estrogen and progesterone are increased in women by taking zinc and testosterone production is also boosted in men.
- Zinc balances insulin, which keeps blood sugar stable.
- Zinc helps with cell growth and division and helps maintain metabolism.
- Zinc helps with the metabolizing of carbohydrates, which provide a lot of energy for the body. That is why not getting enough zinc can cause fatigue.
- Zinc lowers inflammation in the cardiovascular system and helps with circulation.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the good fats you need for heart health and brain function. Omega-3s lower rates of depression and might act as a booster for anti-depressant medications.
Omega-3 supplements can help treat rheumatoid arthritis. It helps with joint pain and stiffness and might even improve the power of anti-inflammatory medications.
Asthma might be another condition that can be improved with omega-3 supplements. Researchers are looking to see if fish oil supplements can reduce medications needs to help lung function.
Research on omega-3 fatty acids is showing that it can reduce symptoms of ADHD. Omega-3s might improve cognitive function, learning, and memory. Studies are currently underway to see if omega-3s protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease and maybe also dementia. Supplements also might slow down the natural memory loss associated with aging.
Supplements are a good idea for people who don’t eat fish or eggs. Taking an omega-3 supplement instead of eating fish can cut down on toxins because fish often contain mercury and PCBs.
It’s important to get omega-3s from either food or supplements.
You can get omega-3s in one of three ways:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain fatty acid that comes from fatty fish.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a long-chain fatty acid that is found in fatty fish and also some algae.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain fatty acid that comes from plant-based foods like tofu, flaxseed, and walnuts.
It should not be too hard for vegetarians to get the recommended dose of Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is 800 to 1,100 mg daily. More sources of ALA include canola oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, beans, and legumes.
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are really good for vegetarians trying to get the recommended daily dose of ALA. There is 1,600 mg of ALA in one tablespoon of ground flaxseed.
Two tablespoons of walnuts can provide you with 1,100 mg of ALA Omega-3s. In just 4 ounces of tofu, you will get 360 mg of ALA.
According to nutritionists, increasing your consumption of omega-3s lowers your chances of developing heart disease.
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that come from marine sources. There is a great deal of research that proves the benefits of EPA and DHA for your heart. The recommended daily dose for EPA and DHA fatty acids are between 250 mg to 500 mg.
EPA and DHA also come in the form of supplements. DHA can come in the vegetarian-friendly form of micro-algae.
Fortified foods that are often a great source of all three omega-3s are eggs, bread, juice, margarine, and peanut butter.
ALA consumption increases DHA and EPA production.
#6. Omega-6 and 9
Omega-6 is another essential fatty acid that, just like omega-3, needs to come from your diet or supplements.
Getting enough omega-6 is not as much of a concern for vegetarians and vegans because it comes in many plant-based forms. There is omega-6 in grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, walnut oil, corn oil, sesame oil, and soybean oil.
Omega-6 reduces pain, reduces inflammation, helps arthritis, improves bone health, lowers blood pressure and reduces the chances of a heart attack.
Omega-9 is not as important as omega-3 and omega-6 because it can be produced by the body.
Good sources of omega-9 are canola oil, olive oil, nut oils, safflower oil, and almonds.
#7. Vitamin D
Typical food sources of vitamin D are cheese, egg yolks, dairy products, and beef liver.
Plant-based sources include fortified cereals and milk alternatives, sunshine and supplements.
Your body needs vitamin D to help absorb calcium which helps with bone growth.
Researchers are finding that vitamin D might be helpful in treating osteoporosis, flu, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, cancer, chronic pain, and autism.
There are blood tests to determine if you are vitamin D deficient but, if you live in a northern climate, it’s safe to assume you are and need a supplement.
Get 2,000 IU a day.
Talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D because it could interact with prescription medication.
There was a study in 2007 that showed that people taking a daily vitamin D supplement had 7% less chance of death than people who were not.
Another startling study showed women with low levels of vitamin D were less likely to survive breast cancer than women with regular levels of vitamin D.
A study was published in the Annuals of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2003 that showed that 25% of vegetarians have an iodine deficiency. Iodine is only found naturally in a few food sources such as dairy and seafood. Vegetarians and vegans who consume a lot of soy, which counteracts iodine, are in danger of iodine deficiency.
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism published a study in 2011 that stated that both vegetarians and vegans both commonly suffer from iodine deficiency. Iodine is needed for the proper functioning of the metabolism. With an iodine deficiency, you can develop a goiter and hyperthyroidism, which can cause tiredness, depression, weight gain, and weakness. Adults are supposed to get at least 150 micrograms per day.
These sea vegetables are the best source of natural iodine:
- Kelp, 1 tablespoon has 2000 mcg (micrograms)
- Hiziki, 1 tablespoon has 780 mcg
- Arame, 1 tablespoon has 730 mcg
- Wakame, 1 tablespoon has 80 mcg
Other natural sources of iodine are:
- Cranberries have around 400 mcg in a 4 oz. serving.
- Organic strawberries contain approximately 32 mcg per 1 cup.
- Organic Navy Beans provide 64 mcg of iodine per 1 cup.
- Organic potatoes, with the skin on, can give you 60 mcg per 1 cup, chopped.
Ovo-vegetarians (who eat no animal products other than eggs), pescatarians (who eat no animal products other than fish) and vegans are in danger of being calcium deficient. Calcium is needed for the maintenance of good bone and dental health.
Calcium-rich, plant-based foods include:
(amount of calcium in 1 cup)
- Collards 266 mg
- Butternut squash 84 mg
- Navy beans 126 mg
- Tofu (raw, firm) 306 mg
- Soy milk (calcium-fortified) 368mg
- Rice milk (enriched) 300 mg
- Dried figs (10) 140 mg
Some major benefits of calcium are:
- It treats and prevents osteopenia and osteoporosis.
- It might regulate phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium in the bloodstream.
- It could maintain blood pressure.
- It helps with PMS symptoms.
- It seems to help prevent certain cancers in women, such as breast cancer.
Adults should get between 1000 to 1200 mg per day. The body can’t absorb more than 500 mg at a time. To give yourself the most calcium possible, take a supplement two times a day. Also, to improve absorption, take calcium with food and take magnesium and vitamin D.
With a little bit of research, it is easy for vegetarians and vegans of all varieties to maintain a healthy diet.
It is important for everyone to understand what we are eating and how it affects our health. With this knowledge, we make sure that our bodies are getting all the nutrients we need to be strong and healthy.
The key for vegetarians and vegans is to incorporate a wide variety of foods in their diet and to take (doctor recommended) supplements for the nutrients they are lacking.