Many people become vegetarians for religious, cultural, ethical, or health reasons. For the most part, a vegetarian diet is nutritionally sufficient. It can also reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease. However, a vegetarian diet must be planned appropriately to ensure that you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need. It may be necessary to take a multivitamin or other nutritional supplement to avoid the health risks associated with vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Getting Enough Macronutrients
1Include a healthy amount of fat in your diet. While you shouldn’t eat too much, fat is essential for your body to properly absorb vitamin A, vitamin D, and other fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Without sufficient fat, you may be at risk for vitamin deficiencies.
- Fats shouldn’t make up more than 33 percent of your diet. Eat more healthy, unsaturated fats that are found in fruit, seeds, and nuts.
- At least one-third of your fat intake should come from monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and rapeseed oil. Another one-third of your fat intake should be polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower, soya, or sesame seed oil.
2Consume healthy fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients. With insufficient quantities, you are at higher risk for immune system dysfunction, macular degeneration, or heart disease.
- If you are a pescatarian and eat fish on a regular basis, you likely consume sufficient fatty acids. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can also get fatty acids from milk and eggs.
- If you are a vegan, eat nuts and green, leafy vegetables to ensure you’re consuming enough fatty acids. If you’re concerned about your intake, you can take a vegetarian supplement.
3Use whole grains for complex carbohydrates. If you eat a lot of refined starches, you’re getting too many simple carbohydrates, which can lead to obesity and heart disease. A vegetarian diet is normally pretty heart-healthy if you limit simple carbs.
- Whole fruits and unprocessed starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and winter squash are also good sources of complex carbohydrates.
4Balance vegetables and grains with sources of protein. Many people believe that vegetarians have difficulty consuming enough protein, but this typically isn’t the case. Many vegetables, in addition to common meat substitutes such as tofu, provide adequate protein.
- Monitor your protein intake and make sure you’re getting enough protein with each meal. Generally, you should consume about .41 grams of protein for every pound of your body weight. For example, a 174-pound vegetarian male would need to consume 71 grams of protein.
Avoiding Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
1Take a B12 supplement. Getting adequate amounts of vitamin B12 can be a genuine problem for vegetarians, since it’s only found naturally in animal products. B12 is essential for red blood cell formation and neurological function.
- B12 is the only vitamin that you can’t get on a vegetarian diet, so a supplement is essential if you don’t eat any animal products.
- Some foods, such as soy milk and breakfast cereals, are fortified with vitamin B12. Check the nutrition label to find out.
2Eat vitamin D-fortified foods. Soy and rice milk, orange juice, and many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D. A deficiency can put you at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
- Spend some time in the sun to activate your body’s natural vitamin D production. Just make sure you wear sunscreen so you don’t damage your skin.
- If you don’t have access to sufficient fortified foods or beverages, take a supplement to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D.
3Add a pinch of salt. Vegetarians may not get enough iodine, which can put you at risk of developing a goiter. Use iodized salt when you cook. Just a quarter-teaspoon a day is enough to prevent iodine deficiency.
- Sufficient iodine is particularly important if you frequently eat soy products or sweet potatoes, which can actually promote a goiter.
4Combine foods rich in iron and vitamin C. Some vegetarians may not get enough iron. You can substantially decrease this risk by eating iron-rich greens alongside foods such as oranges that have a lot of vitamin C. Vitamin C improves your body’s absorption of iron.
- Since your body can’t absorb iron from plant sources as easily as from animal sources, you need to consume twice as much iron as a non-vegetarian. If you’re concerned about an iron deficiency, take an iron supplement or a multivitamin with iron.
5Drink calcium-fortified beverages. The calcium added to soy and rice beverages, as well as many juices such as orange and apple juice, is similar to the calcium found in milk. If you aren’t consuming dairy products, you can get sufficient calcium this way.
- When buying soy or rice milk, or juices, check the labels to determine whether calcium has been added, and in what quantities.
- Vegans who don’t consume enough calcium are at higher risk for bone fractures. You can also take a supplement if you’re concerned about your intake.
- Green leafy vegetables and tofu are some other basic sources of calcium for vegetarians.
6Eat beans and seeds for zinc. Vegetarians also may not consume enough zinc on a daily basis. Zinc deficiency is rare, but puts you at risk for immune dysfunction, weight loss, and lethargy. Eating a lot of whole grains can bind zinc and decrease your body’s absorption of the mineral.
- To increase the zinc quantity in your food, soak beans, grains, or seeds in water for several hours before eating. Let them sit and allow them to sprout before you cook them.
- Like iron, your body absorbs zinc from plant sources less efficiently than it does from meat sources. Vegetarians should consume at least 50 percent more zinc than meat eaters. If you’re concerned about your zinc intake, look for a vegetarian supplement.
- Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season. Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables, such as those sold at your local farmer’s market, have more vitamins and minerals than produce shipped long distances to sit on a grocer’s shelf.
- If you have any issues, you may want to consult a registered dietician. They can evaluate what you’re eating and help remedy any deficiencies. Search the online directory at https://www.eatright.org/find-an-expert to find a registered dietician near you.
- Read food labels carefully. They will tell you the amounts of vitamins and minerals contained in each serving of food.
- You can use a vegetarian food pyramid, such as the one found at http://www.vegetariannutrition.org/6icvn/food-pyramid.pdf, to plan balanced meals that meet your nutritional needs.
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