Vegetarian, vegan, and plant-forward diets are becoming more and more mainstream. Some choose this way of eating for ethical and environmental reasons, others for religious purposes, and others because of the many health benefits that plants have on our bodies - fiber, vitamins, minerals!
As gut-health dietitians, we love plant-forward diets because the research has shown that those eating 30 or more plant foods a week have the most diverse and healthiest microbiomes.
Just because you're eating a vegetarian diet doesn't mean it's necessarily healthy. Lots of convenience (aka ultra-processed) foods are not nutrient-rich are marketed as being "vegan-friendly." We understand how confusing this can be!
If you're vegetarian and you eat eggs and dairy, you are probably meeting your needs. If you are vegan, you may need to increase your intake because plant protein is less bio-available and may not contain all essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Protein intake should be spread throughout the day and come from a variety of foods to ensure all amino acids are being had. Beans, nuts, soy/tofu, quinoa, and hemp seeds are great sources of vegan protein.
Dairy isn't the only source of this mineral needed for bone health (plus teeth, muscle contraction, and much more). There are lots of leafy greens, beans, and fortified sources of calcium. See our blog post on non-dairy calcium sources for foods that'll ensure that you are meeting your needs.
Iron is needed to transport oxygen throughout the blood and body. It is also necessary for physical growth, neurological development, hormone production, and cellular function. Raisins, spinach, beans, tofu, cashews, pistachios, broccoli, and even dark chocolate are plant sources of iron (aka non-heme). Because this type of iron is not absorbed as well as iron from animal sources, pair with a source of vitamin C (bell peppers, strawberries, orange, lemon, etc.), which helps this process.
Zinc is used in numerous functions in the body including the immune system and for wound healing. It's is a trace mineral that is not stored in the body. Plant sources include chickpeas, peas, lentils, potatoes, kale, dark chocolate, and whole grains.
Vitamin B12 is vital for red blood cell creation and the formation of nerve cells. It is only found in animal sources or in fortified foods. Plant source of B12 can be found in fortified rice or soy milk, fortified nutritional yeast, and fortified cereals.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are essential unsaturated fatty acids. They are a type of polyunsaturated fat that aid in building brain cells, are good for heart health, and have been shown to decrease cholesterol (via their anti-inflammatory properties). There are three types of omega- 3's, EPA, DHA, and ALA. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or mackerel, and ALA is found in seeds, walnuts, flax, & avocado. The body can’t make omega-3s, so it's ESSENTIAL to get them from food! Vegetarian sources like flax seeds, chia, and hemp all contain ALA. The body can convert some ALA to DHA & EPA, but this process is not very efficient (less than 15% is converted), so more is required to meet your needs. Additional food sources include walnuts, flax seed oil, algae, and fortified milks.
Vitamin D is important for bone and immune function as well as nerve transmission. Sources of vitamin D include the sun, fortified foods like orange juice, cereals, and tofu; and mushrooms raised with UV lights. Vitamin D insufficiency is a concern for the general population, especially those living in latitudes above 37th parallel - basically if you live in the northern half of the United States, this vitamin can be of concern!
If you think you could use help following a more complete, balanced eating pattern - we're here to help! Book a free consultation!