The 6 Nutrients Vegetarian and Vegan Diets May Be Missing
If you follow a meatless diet, make sure you're getting enough of these six key nutrients.
Research has long supported that eating more plant-based foods can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers. However, whether you choose to eat this way part-time or all of the time, there are a few nutrients that need to be on your radar to make sure you are getting enough. Luckily, there are many whole-food sources, fortified foods and supplements to ensure you are meeting the daily nutrient requirements. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or plan on switching anytime soon, be mindful of these six nutrients.
Vitamin B12, found primarily in animal products, is needed for production of DNA and maintaining a healthy nervous system. A deficiency may cause megaloblastic anemia (which causes your red blood cells to be larger than normal), fatigue and nerve damage. Seafood and dairy offer high-quality vegetarian (pescatarian) options while nutritional yeast and fortified foods like breakfast cereals may be best food-based options for those on a vegan diet.
Milk, yogurt and other dairy products are a homerun in the calcium department but calcium is found in several plant-based foods. Vegan sources include leafy greens like kale and spinach, soybeans and fortified soybean products like tofu and tempeh as well as dried figs, almonds, tahini, broccoli and chickpeas. Several foods and beverages are fortified with calcium, including breakfast cereals, orange juice, soy milk, almond milk and other plant-based beverages.
Also known as the “sunshine vitamin” because when the sun’s UV-B rays hit the skin, a reaction takes place that triggers skin cells to manufacture vitamin D. Fair-skinned individuals can produce up to 10,000 IU’s of the vitamin with just 10 minutes of exposure but this can vary dramatically depending upon where you live, time of year and how much sunscreen you apply. Vitamin D is fairly limited in foods and mostly found in animal products like egg yolks, milk and fatty fish. Plant-based sources of vitamin D include fortified plant-based milks, tofu, some mushrooms, fortified breakfast cereals and fortified orange juice. To determine if a supplement is needed, ask your doctor for bloodwork to check your levels.
Iron is found in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, found predominately in meat, poultry, and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts is absorbed less efficiently. As plant-based diets only contain non-heme iron, vegans especially should include foods that are high in iron and include techniques that can promote iron absorption. These include sprouting, soaking, and fermenting as well as including a vitamin-C rich food source with your iron-rich meal (vitamin C aids in the absorption of non-heme iron). Plant-based sources of iron include chickpeas, lentils, tofu, whole and enriched grain products, raisins, figs, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds and broccoli. Since too much iron from supplements can be dangerous, here is another good time to ask your doctor to test and deem if a an supplement is necessary.
Omega-3 fatty acids provide the building blocks for the brain, nervous system, and cell membranes. They also help promote eye sight, skin health and have anti-inflammatory properties. The best sources of the most coveted EPA and DHA forms of omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, tuna, anchovies and sardines. The plant-based or ALA form of omega-3s are more plentiful in the food supply but must be consumed in abundance as ALA needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body and the rate of conversation is low. Good sources of omega-3 ALA’s are found flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, leafy greens, soybeans, and wheat germ. If these are not included regularly, supplementing with an algae-derived DHA/EPA supplement may be encouraged by your doctor or registered dietitian.
The main sources of zinc in the diet are usually animal products, followed by fortified cereals. However, many plant foods do contain zinc. Being mindful of incorporating these foods into your diet is important, especially since naturally existing compounds known as phytates in plant-foods can inhibit some of their absorption. However, the effects of phytates can be lowered through fermentation, soaking, and boiling root vegetables. Good sources of zinc include tofu, tempeh, pumpkin, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, oatmeal, tahini and cashews.
Alex Caspero MA, RD, RYT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Yoga Teacher. She is the founder of Delish Knowledge (delishknowledge.com), a resource for healthy, whole-food vegetarian recipes. In her private coaching practice, she helps individuals find their “Happy Weight.”
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.