Getting Enough Nutrients on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

Bowl of tofu cubes
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If you’re eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, you are eating one of the healthiest diets on the planet. You do, however, need to make sure you get a few vital nutrients. Besides getting enough protein, it is equally important to include enough calcium and iron in a vegetarian diet, If you’re vegan, vitamin B12 is also a concern.

Vegetarian Protein

One of the most common questions vegetarians hear from non-vegetarians is "Where do you get your protein?" The good news is that if you’re eating a well-balanced diet, you’re probably consuming more than enough protein. Be sure that you are eating a variety of protein-rich foods so you get the full complement of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.

If you’re a ​lacto-ovo vegetarian, you’ll likely get sufficient protein from eggs and dairy without even trying, but if you’re vegan, here are some high protein vegan foods to include in your diet: tofu, seitan, veggie burgers, soy, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, brown rice and whole grains.

Women need about 45 grams of protein per day and men need around 55 grams, which is easy to achieve since one cup of tofu contains about 20 grams of protein.

Calcium

Kids need lots of calcium while they’re still growing, but adults need calcium too. If you’re a smoker, you will need to get more calcium, as your absorption and retention levels are lower. Strong bones throughout life come from both calcium in the diet and exercise, so for optimum health, be sure you get both.

Although milk is a source of calcium, you certainly don’t need milk to get plenty of calcium. Here are some calcium-rich foods to try: spinach, collard greens, kale, soy milk, fortified orange juice, sesame seeds, tahini, broccoli, almonds, carrots, and rice milk. Be sure to shake your soy milk and orange juice before drinking, as the calcium can settle to the bottom.

Iron

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that iron levels in vegetarians and vegans in the UK were, on average, higher than those of the general population, showing that it’s possible to get more than enough iron on a vegan diet. Just like with protein, however, you should still be sure to eat a balanced diet to ensure you are getting enough iron.

Drinking coffee and tea, particularly with meals, can limit your iron absorption and should be consumed at least three hours before a meal. For an iron boost, try eating tofu, lentils, spinach, soy, chickpeas, and hummus. Vitamin C also increases the absorption of iron, so if you take an iron supplement, wash it down with some orange juice.

Vitamin B12

Vegetarians don’t have to worry about vitamin B12, and many people disagree about whether or not vegans need a B12 supplement. You may want to go with "better safe than sorry" on this one. B12 deficiency is extremely rare among both vegans and non-vegetarians alike but is a serious issue when it does occur.

There are a few things vegans should know about B12:

  • Your body has the ability to store B12 for a number of years, so if you’re newly vegan, you may have sufficient reserves for another decade, but unless you have your B12 levels tested regularly there is no way of knowing.
  • Nutritional yeast is the best food source for B12, although miso and some seaweeds contain a minimal amount as well.
  • Although nutritional yeast is a great source and an incredibly tasty addition to just about everything, some doctors suggest it's best not to rely on a single source and recommend taking a vitamin supplement at least once a week, even if you regularly eat nutritional yeast.
  • If you’re a smoker, your body will lose nutrients, so you need extra B12.
  • Expectant mothers and infants have special B12 needs as well. If you’re vegan and expecting, take a supplement every day.

Healthy Eating Patterns

Eating a healthy vegetarian diet is one of the best things you can do for your short-term and long-term health. As a vegetarian or vegan, you will lower your cholesterol and have a greatly reduced risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

There is a big difference, however, between eating a vegan diet of french fries and soda, and a well-balanced plant-based diet. If you’re still exploring how to be vegetarian or vegan, it's likely that you’re not as familiar with your body’s nutritional needs so it's a good idea to take a multi-vitamin. A B12 supplement is always a good idea for vegans and those who eat a mostly vegan diet.