Nutrition Articles

7 Key Nutrients Vegetarians Need to Watch

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

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4. Vitamin D
Our bodies produce the bone-forming vitamin D when we expose our skin to the sun, but cloud cover, long winters, indoor jobs, and the widespread use of sunscreen mean we're not hitting our daily targets. There aren't many food sources for vitamin D—especially if you're vegetarian or vegan. Vitamin D is added to commercially bought milk and many yogurt products, and it occurs naturally in salmon and egg yolks. As vitamin D continues making headlines, we're starting to see it added to additional food products, including non-dairy milks, fortified cereals, and other packaged foods. The current recommended intake for vitamin D is 600 International Units (IU) for adults up to age 70 years, and for adults 71 or older the recommendation is 800 IU. Talk to your doctor about your exact vitamin D need, if a supplementation is right for you, the type of supplement and the amount to take daily.

There are two forms of supplemental vitamin D: vitamin D2 (generally made from yeast) and vitamin D3 (made from the skins of sheep, cows, pigs and sheep’s wool). Researchers have found vitamin D2 is only about 60 percent as effective as vitamin D3 in raising serum vitamin D levels. However, it makes sense that vegetarians prefer the D2 form, which is not of animal origin. Because it isn't utilized as effectively, many experts suggest that vegetarians who rely on vitamin D2 consume 1.7 times the RDI. This means the intake for up to 70 years of age should be 1,020 IU of D2 daily (25.5 mcg); and after the age of 70 it should be 1,360 IU (34 mcg) of D2. Learn more about vitamin D, where to find it, and how to pick a high-quality supplement here.

5. Iron
Iron serves as an essential part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood from your lungs to every body cell. Iron comes in two forms: heme, which is better absorbed, and non-heme, which is not absorbed as readily. According to the Institutes of Medicine and The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), 40% of the iron found in meat, poultry and fish is heme, while the other 60% is non-heme. All plant-based sources of iron are non-heme, which is why the RDA for iron is higher for vegetarians than it is for meat eaters. According to the Institutes of Medicine, vegetarian men and post-menopausal women need 14 mg daily and pre-menopause vegetarian women should aim for 33 mg each day. While non-heme iron isn't as readily absorbed as heme iron, a few simple steps can influence the absorption of iron:
  • Select a variety of plant-based iron-rich foods daily, such as legumes, fortified veggie meats, nuts and seeds, prunes, raisins, blackstrap molasses, fortified cereals and grains, kale, and broccoli.
  • Do not rely on spinach, beet greens, rhubarb, and Swiss chard for your iron. An acid in these veggies called "oxalates" binds with the iron, making it unavailable for the body.
  • Eat iron-rich plant foods along with fruits and veggies that are rich in vitamin C during the same meal or snack to increase absorption.
  • Use cast-iron pots and pans to cook your food, especially acidic foods such as tomato sauce. This will increase the amount of iron in your food.
  • Do not drink tea or coffee with your iron-rich foods. The tannins in the tea and coffee can decrease the absorption of the iron. Some herbal teas, such as chamomile, peppermint, lime flower, and pennyroyal, can also decrease absorption.
If you are in doubt about your iron intake, talk to your doctor. A simple test can determine your iron level.

6. Zinc
Zinc is crucial for metabolism, immunity and healing. Meat, seafood and animal products are high in zinc, and according to the National Institutes of Health, some vegetarians need 50% more than the recommended 40 mg for adults over 18. Why? Because zinc found in plant foods has a lower absorption level. To maximize your zinc intake:
  • Include a variety of zinc-rich foods throughout the day, such as whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, tempeh, miso, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, if applicable, eggs and dairy products. Zinc-fortified cereals and vegetarian "meats" are also available.
  • To increase the amount of zinc absorbed from plant foods, soak nuts, beans, and legumes overnight. The yeasting of bread can also increase zinc absorption, as well as the sprouting of brown, green and French lentils.
  • If you choose to use a supplement, select a multivitamin-mineral supplement with a zinc level near the recommended intake amount (see above). Do not buy an individual zinc supplement, unless prescribed by your doctor. Large amounts of zinc can interfere with the utilization of other minerals.
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There is a substantial amount of research showing that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits. These healthful fats help with inflammatory diseases, decreasing the risk for coronary heart disease, lowering blood pressure, lessening the joint pain of arthritis, and protecting against dementia and depression. However, it can be a challenge for the vegetarian to get an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids when he or she is no longer eating fatty fish. Incorporating a sufficient amount of plant-based foods high in the omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can optimize your omega-3 intake. While ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil are probably the best choices for vegetarians, other foods to include in your diet are walnuts, soybeans, soybean oil, olive oil, and hemp oil.


There are many benefits to eating a vegetarian or vegan diet—and this article is not meant to scare you away from it! However, making smart food choices is essential. Next time you're deciding between the veggie burger and the faux turkey slices, consider more than calories. Zero in on these nutrients to help you make the best decision for optimal health. And remember that you can easily track each of these nutrients on your free SparkPeople Nutrition Tracker to see how you're doing day to day and then make adjustments as necessary.

Here's to a healthy and balanced plant-based diet!



Want to learn more about going meatless? Check out SparkPeople's first e-book! It's packed with over 120 delicious meat-free recipes, plus tips and tricks for going meatless. Get it on Amazon for $2.99 and start cooking easy, wholesome veg-centric meals the whole family will love!











Sources
Information Sheet: Vitamin B12 from The Vegetarian Society (www.VegSoc.org)
Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet, Zinc from the Office of Dietary Supplements (part of the National Institutes of Health
Iron in the Vegan Diet from The Vegetarian Resource Group (www.VRG.org)
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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

  • ALLISONKARA01
    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
  • LISASLAVEY12
    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
  • BBIDDLE11
    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
    orum.com/foru
    ms/showthread
    .php?26082-Th
    e-myth-about-
    protein-combi
    ning-from-the
    -woman-who-launched-the-idea - 7/12/2012 4:54:19 PM
  • REFERENCEGIRL73
    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
  • KMACNME
    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
  • GIANT-STEPS
    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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