Nutrition Articles

7 Key Nutrients Vegetarians Need to Watch

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

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.

Member Comments

    Dietary supplements for vegetarians is kind of hard to be fulfilled. Specially, if you do not have access to organic farm products. Most fruits and vegetables have injected hormones, and most people tend to avoid it. - 4/28/2014 5:34:54 AM
    my dr put me on a protein diet , just meat , vegs , salads , fruit , how much weight you can tell me how much weight can i lose in a month , - 3/3/2014 5:37:52 PM
  • When your deathly allergic to dairy it's not always possible to eat/drink fortified foods for calcium especially. The calcium source usually tends to be a dairy bi-product of some sort... at least in everything I've seen.

    While these articles are interesting, they sometimes really are not helpful. This one states spinich isn't a good source for iron to rely on while another article I read last night says it is a good source. Which is correct? It's hard to get good info when articles on the same site contradict each other with information like that. Spinich is my main source of iron, or was... now I am not sure.... - 12/4/2013 10:09:27 PM
    great article - 7/18/2013 8:45:01 AM
  • If you are eating vegan "whole foods", you do not need to buy processed foodstuffs just to get the nutrients listed in this article. B12 is the only one you will be lacking - AFTER 2-3 years of no meats and dairy. Vitamin D - get it from the sun unless you live in Alaska in winter. Health vegans don't eat "much" processed food (less than 5 percent". Unhealthy vegans eat crap processed food instead of whole foods.

    No need for ANY processed foods to get "fortified" food with vitamin and nutrients - they abounds in the whole foods veggie, fruit, nuts, and seeds kingdom. Add a B12 supplement once a week and you are good to go IF you eat natural foods as nature grew them.

    Google John McDougall )of Starch Solution and many other books), and read his website including his "free plan". Google Jeff Novick Nutrition and read links there. - 6/16/2013 12:24:17 PM
  • Even though I'm generally a higher protein sort of person, (one reason I'm no longer a vegetarian), those protein guides are unrealistic for most people and particularly for vegetarians. Most people are on sparkpeople because they're larger than average and want to lose weight. 68 g of protein is doable but 114 for a person who weighs 250 (like me) is hard even if you eat meat.

    If you want to be a vegetarian, lose weight, keep your nutrition up and not always feel hungry, you need to be very careful about your carbs, rarely eating white flour or sugar. You will also need to be careful of your cheese intake if you are ovo-lacto. This is very hard to do and still go out with friends to eat in this country. - 5/8/2013 1:24:29 PM
  • The comment by MarkSS on combining proteins (ie beans and rice) comes out of a theory in the 1970's which has been disproven. It is rather easy to get enough protein if your calories are coming from fruits and vegetables rather than high sugar sources.

    Don't want people to be scared of reducing traditional protein sources because of elaborate food planning; not needed.

    Source: http://www.veganf
    -woman-who-launched-the-idea - 7/12/2012 4:54:19 PM
    This article was disappointing and inaccurate. I have been veg for 20 and not once have I been nutritionally deficient in anything or had to be careful that I was getting proper nutrition. I would like to see the article written to all types of eaters about how to make sure we are all getting proper nutrition. Meat and dairy are not some nutritional panacea. If that was all you ate you would get scurvy. - 7/12/2012 3:22:58 PM
  • To the authors: you may not be aware, but the phrase "rule of thumb" refers to an old law that permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick, as long as the stick wasn't thicker than your thumb. FYI.

    Otherwise, good article. - 7/12/2012 1:55:15 PM
  • I'd add Chia seed and DHA supplements to the Omega 3 list for vegans. - 7/12/2012 1:50:33 PM
  • I am in the middle of reading becoming vegan and believe that this article makes some dangerous, stereotypical assumptions about vegan and vegetarian diets. Protein is once again addressed up front when it really, truly is not a concern. Protein is in almost everything! As long as you are eating beans, whole grains, veggies and fruit, you are straight and will more that fufill your needs. Too much protein is responsible for cancers, a lack of vitamin and mineral absorbtion, and a host of other health issues, especially when that additional protein comes from animal-based sources and in particular dairy products.

    Given the amount of enriched foods and supplements now on the market, there is no reason why someone who conciously plans their meals should ever have vitamin or mineral deficiencies unless other factors are at play.

    According to "Becoming Vegan," 95 percent of vitamin B-12 definicies are not the result of not enough B-12 but instead are the result absorbtion issues mainly in those over the age of 50. This is not to say that vegans and vegetarians should not strive to get appropriate amount of B-12 through supplementation and fortified foods, it is merely to note that being scared of getting proper nutrition should not serve as an avoidance tool that prevents us from eating more compassionately.

    No matter what our food choices, we should be aware of what we are puttting in our bodies and where it comes from. "Becoming Vegan" also states that the B-12 present in animal foods is the result of animals ingesting feces and dirt that then becomes present in their meat. Frankly, I would prefer to supplement with a plant-based form of B-12. - 7/12/2012 7:58:53 AM
  • MADDY108
    A very informative article for a vegetarian like myself - 7/12/2012 6:59:39 AM
  • Mark, I think that this article was meant as a starting point for general information on some nutrients to look for, for those just starting a diet switch, and that the intent is that the reader should investigate further. You don't want to overload a reader with information and overwhelm them.

    Thea, my protein on my nutrition tracker is set at 60-158. I think the reason for that is that, unless you are on a rigorous weight training, the balance of calories from carbs, protein and fat should be 50/20/30, so when you break that down into the calories per gram from each macronutrient, that's how many grams you should have if you are eating the specified amount of calories.

    Kmacnme, Zinc requirements for vegetarians is higher because the form of zinc found in plant material isn't absorbed as well as that found in meat, so you need more in order to have the same amount in your blood as that of a meat eater. - 3/23/2012 7:53:07 PM
    I am very confused about the zinc that is posted in this article as the recommended daily amount. It states 40 mg's, but I read that it's only 8-9 mg's for adult women. That's a BIG conflict. Please clarify. - 3/3/2012 8:33:59 PM
    All plant foods have protein (though apples have only a trace). All vegetarian proteins have complete proteins as well. All plant proteins have some of each of all of the essential amino acids. It is true the ratios of amino acids in most plant foods are such that if we were to eat a monodiet of one food and only eat as much protein as we strictly need we would have a problem. In the real world we (including vegetarians) eat more protein than we need so we do not have to worry about perfectly balanced amino acids. Moreover, amino acid complimentation does not even have to occur at the same meal; unless you eat the same food every meal some complimentation is going on.

    How often do you hear of protein deficiency in 1st world countries? The only place where this happens is in starving 3rd world countries. it simply isn't a problem where food is abundant regardless if it is animal or plant food.

    B12 is a valid concern for strict vegans as is D for people who neither spend time in the sun nor eat seafood. Zinc and Iron tend to be lower in vegetarians but it is usually sufficient.

    There are far more shortcomings the meat and processed food heavy diet most people eat than from people who eat mainly whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. - 10/2/2010 7:32:07 PM

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