7 Key Nutrients Vegetarians and Vegans Need to Watch

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. (Simply 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.)

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, 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.

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 supplement 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); after the age of 70, it should be 1,360 IU (34 mcg) of D2.

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 percent of the iron found in meat, poultry and fish is heme, while the other 60 percent 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 percent 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 vegetarians to get an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids when they are 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—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. 

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

I liked the article, but didn't understand this:
"Daily supplement: If supplementation is necessary, choose a multivitamin-mine
ral supplement that provides at least 10 mcg of B-12.
Weekly supplement: If a larger dose supplement is used weekly, the supplement should contain 2,000 mcg of B-12 and be taken once a week."
Why 200 daily doses for a 7-day week? Report
Good to know, thank you Report
Definitely Report
so the comment in the article about protein amounts "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. ...") - that should apply to protein needs at our goal weight, right? because otherwise we are maintaining our current weight if we apply that protein (like I did, which came up with well over 100 grams of protein a day, but by goal weight it would be more like 60 grams.). Report
Thanks - good to know. Report
thanks for sharing Report
I have been vegetarian my whole adult life when I was finally free of my meat eating family. I consumed dairy products, but was a 'bad' one, eating processed foods like pasta, beans, bread and soup. I only gained weight later in life due to junk food. When I cut it out I did lose some of the weight. Part of my problem was eating too much bread. I didn't finally lose all my weight until I eliminated grain products. My Naturopath suggested a vegan healing elimination diet to cure my RA. The foods most likely to cause inflammation are gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, sugar, eggs. My blood tests have always been good, so obviously I am doing something right in my choices of food and supplements. A lot of illness is caused by what you eat. You can have a food sensitivity and not even know it. Being diagnosed with IBS is a clue. My RA is in remission, but my osteo is not. I added back some dairy, but may have to take it out again. It is considered by many to be a good healing diet, but not something to be on permanently. The claim is vegans have a high rate of sickness. I don't get sick. While people all around me hack it up with colds or get the flu, I haven't had one, ever. Only once, when I was a kid, I caught the flu. But we are all experiments of one and have to find the sweet spot of what works for us. Report
Lots of different replies on this one Report
There are many outstanding plant sources of calcium as well as protein. I'm on a limited protein diet (Ornish) and have to track/plan carefully to not exceed my protein allowance for the day on a vegan diet. Report
I need to make sure I get enough protein. Report
I have been a vegetarian since day 1 of life. I have never eaten a chicken nugget or hamburger or fish or anything. I do eat dairy and eggs rarely, but I've never had any nutrition issues in the whole 34 years of my life. I have gained lots of weight, dropped lots of weight, and given birth to 2 perfectly healthy kids with no issues. I've never taken vitamin supplements (except some vegan prenatal vitamins when pregnant), and I still have long/healthy hair, healthy/strong nails, no health issues, lots of energy, and I'm in a healthy weight range. It can be done! :)

I'm not saying everyone would be like me as a vegetarian, and maybe if you've eaten meat in the past it's different? I don't do anything out of the ordinary with my diet (other than avoid meat) and eat lots of varieties of food. IMHO, variety is the key...I'm not going to go out & buy a bunch of random foods just to perfectly match nutrition requirements. What a pain! Report
This article is outdated and a little silly. Plant based foods literally offer the highest quality and best source of all nutrients. Healthy vegans (not junk food vegans - but whole foods, high carb vegans) literally lack nothing except perhaps B12. Report
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. Report
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 , Report
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.... Report


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.