PHOTOGRAPH BY R SZATKOWSKI/SHUTTERSTOCK
And yet, for all the delicious benefits, veggie-centric diets can sometimes be at risk for falling short of important nutrients—though that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to miss out. “A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can supply all the nutrition needed to live a healthy and full life,” says Rene Ficek, RD, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating.
The key to success? Figuring out which vitamins and minerals you might be more likely to fall short of and finding the foods that can help you fill those nutritional gaps. (And if you’re still not getting enough, popping a supplement.) Here are 5 important nutrients that all vegetarians and vegans should be aware of, and how to make sure you’re getting your fill.
This article was originally published by our partners at RodalesOrganicLife.com.
The mineral is essential for strong bones and teeth, and also plays an important role in proper blood vessel and nerve function. Milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy foods pack the biggest calcium punch, so if you don’t eat them—or don’t eat them regularly—it can be tougher to get enough.
How much you need: Men and women 50 and under need 1,000 mg daily; women over 50 need 1,200 mg daily.
Where to get it: Make a point to eat 2 or 3 daily servings of calcium-rich foods like tofu, edamame, broccoli, leafy green vegetables (such as chinese cabbage), or calcium-fortified plant milk, Ficek says. Try these 20 high-calcium vegan foods. Can’t swing it? Consider talking to your doctor about taking a calcium supplement.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to cells. Without enough of the mineral, you might start to feel fuzzy, fatigued, and weak. And though iron is found in both animal and plant foods, the iron in the latter is harder for your body to absorb.
How much you need: Men, as well as women over 50, need 8 mg daily; women under 50 need 18 mg daily (to offset iron loss during menstruation). Women who are pregnant need 27 mg iron a day. Here’s how to tell if you’re not getting enough iron in your diet.
Where to get it: Find iron in beans, lentils, snow peas, spinach, and nuts, as well as in iron-fortified breakfast cereal. You can increase your body’s absorption by pairing iron-rich foods with sources of vitamin C (like red bell peppers or citrus fruits), Ficek says. Steer clear of coffee and tea when eating an iron-rich meal, too, since both contain compounds that inhibit iron absorption. If you’re having trouble meeting your iron needs through food alone, talk with your doctor about a supplement.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, but that’s not all. Though experts are still learning about all of D’s benefits, findings suggest that it could help fight mood disorders, promote better sleep, and even play a role in preventing heart disease and cancer. (Here’s what happens when you don’t get enough vitamin D.)
How much you need: 600 IU daily
Where to get it: You’ll find some vitamin D in eggs, fortified dairy, fortified orange juice, and fortified cereal. But even that might not cut it. “Diet alone is typically a difficult way to get enough vitamin D,” Ficek says. “Depending on where you live and your lifestyle, you may not be getting enough sunshine for your body to turn it into vitamin D.” The best way to tell if you’re making the mark? Get a blood test. If your vitamin D levels are low, your doctor will likely suggest a supplement.
Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal foods—so the fewer you eat, the more likely you are to fall short. Still, it’s important to get enough. “Vitamin B12 aids in the production of DNA and helps make neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Ficek. Regularly miss out, and you could be at risk for numbness in your hands and feet, trouble walking or balancing, weakness, and fatigue.
How much you need: 2.4 mcg daily
Where to get it: If you’re vegetarian, having milk, yogurt, cheese, or eggs on a frequent basis should cover your B12 bases. As for vegan sources, the only options are nutritional yeast and fortified foods like cereal and nondairy milk. If you don’t eat those regularly, talk with your doctor about supplementing.
The essential fatty acids play an important role in everything from heart health, mood, and sleep, to brain health and cognition. But because omega-3s are most abundant in fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, vegetarians and vegans tend to get less than nonvegetarians. What’s more, fatty fish contain DHA and EPA, the types of omega-3s that are easiest for the body to use. You’ll find another type of omega-3s in plant foods, called ALA, that the body must convert to DHA and EPA in order to use.
How much you need: Many experts recommend getting at least 500 mg daily, but there’s no official recommended daily allowance for omega-3s.
Where to get it: Plant sources of omega-3s include walnuts and walnut oil, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil. But for now, it’s unclear just how well the body can convert the ALAs from plant foods into DHA and EPA. So if you’re concerned about your omega-3 intake, talk with your doctor. She might recommend a vegan DHA and EPA omega-3 supplement made from algae.