Nutrition Articles

7 Key Nutrients Vegetarians Need to Watch

Vegetarian or Vegan? Make Sure These are Part of Your Diet

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There are many benefits to being vegetarian and vegan. Regardless of why you chose such a lifestyle, it’s not enough to simply cut the meat, poultry, and seafood from your daily menu. Animal products do offer nutrients that support growth, body functions and a healthy immune system, and it’s important that these nutrients are acquired from another food source after you stop eating meat.

Every committed vegetarian should pay special attention to seven key nutrients to ensure that a plant-based diet is also a healthful one.

1. Protein
When you tell people you don't eat meat, a question about protein usually follows. Although many people associate meat with protein, you can meet your protein needs with plenty of plant-based sources. Unfortunately, new and seasoned vegetarians are often guilty of removing meat, poultry and fish from their diets without a reliable plan to replace those animal proteins with vegetarian proteins. To eat the same foods—pizza, sandwiches, pasta dishes and stir fries—minus the meat –can leave you feeling hungry and your meals unbalanced (high in carbs and fat, low in protein). So how much protein do you need?

An easy rule of thumb is that your daily protein requirement is the same as your weight in kilograms. (Simple divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you weigh 68.2 kilograms and should consume about 68.2 grams of protein daily.) You can also refer to the customized nutrition plan on your SparkPeople Nutrition Tracker to find your daily protein needs.

Now take a look at your diet. Are you getting protein from beans, legumes, nuts, soy, and (if you consume them) milk, eggs and cheese? Are you enjoying these protein-rich foods at every meal and snack? If not, pump up the vegetarian protein for a balanced diet!

2. Vitamin B-12
Vitamin B-12 is responsible for red blood cell growth and nervous system maintenance, but when the only unfortified, natural sources of this vitamin are meat, dairy and eggs, vegetarians—and especially vegans—often lose out. Go too long without adequate B-12 and you may find yourself at risk for macrocytic anemia, a type of abnormality in red blood cell development, as well as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, memory loss, dizziness, mood changes, loss of vision and irreversible nerve damage. To ensure you get enough B-12, select eggs and dairy products daily. For those who don't eat eggs or dairy, look for vitamin B-12 in fortified vegan cheese, yogurt, and non-dairy drinks; fortified cereals; fortified veggie burgers and faux meats; and nutritional yeast. Based on personal choice, one of these recommended plans should be used to ensure adequate vitamin B-12 intake:
  • Daily Intake: Healthy adult males and females need 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B-12 daily based on the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). This RDA assumes that one’s intake is spread over the course of a day for improved absorption, using foods high in vitamin B-12 as listed above.
  • Daily Supplement: If supplementation is necessary, choose a multivitamin-mineral supplement that provides at least 10 mcg of B-12.
  • Weekly Supplement: If a larger dose supplement is used weekly, then the supplement should contain 2,000 mcg of B-12 and be taken once a week.
3. Calcium
Most of us know that the mineral calcium is important for bone and overall health, but many people don't consume enough. Adults 18 to 50 years old need 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day, while those 51 and older need 1,200 mg daily. Calcium can be a concern for vegans and vegetarians who do not eat any milk or dairy products. Similar to the advice that you must replace what you take out (meat) with something nutritionally similar (plant-based proteins), the same holds true for calcium. If you do eat dairy, aim for about three low-fat servings per day. If you consume less than that (or none at all), keep your body’s blood-clotting and bone-building abilities up to par by including non-dairy calcium foods like chickpeas, broccoli, dried figs, enriched whole-wheat bread, calcium-set tofu, and calcium-fortified soy cheese, orange juice, or cereal in your daily diet.
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

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