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Health & Wellness

What Are the Most Important Nutrients in a Vegetarian Diet?

If you are following a vegetarian-based diet, it is important to pay special attention to the variety that you have in your diet. As a vegetarian, it can be difficult to get certain nutrients through diet alone simply because it eliminates various food groups containing essential nutrients your body needs to function properly. While following this diet can be great for your health, you could be contributing to poor health if you fail to take in certain nutrients lacking in your vegetarian diet. You want to pay special attention to consuming various foods in sufficient quantities to ensure that you are filling in the inherent gaps in your vegetarian-based diet. Follow the tips below to ensure that you are optimizing your vegetarian diet as best possible to gain all of the health benefits that come along with following the diet.

What Nutrients Do Vegetarians Lack In Their Diets?

vegetarian diet Calcium

This is typically one of the essential minerals that vegetarians lack in their diets. This is primarily because some vegetarians choose to limit their intake of dairy and/or eliminate it altogether. Therefore, if your diet is limited in dairy, you might be needing to look for ways to get more calcium in your diet through other methods. After all, studies have shown that for many people it is not possible to achieve recommended daily calcium intake while adhering to a completely dairy-free diet. 1 With that being said, you should be able to get more through plant-based foods and by paying careful attention to your calcium intake. However, plant-based calcium is not as easily absorbed. Unfortunately, many plant-based calcium sources contain phytic acid which is well known for having a high affinity for binding minerals like calcium.

Thus, if you are consuming plant-based calcium sources, you’ll likely have a lot of the calcium in your diet rendered unavailable for absorption. 2 One of the biggest offenders is soy milk alternatives which many vegetarians typically incorporate in their diets. One of the best ways to get more readily absorbable calcium in your diet is by substituting dairy milk with coconut milk. Coconut milk can not only serve as a good source of vitamin D with proper fortification, but it can supply up to 50 percent more calcium than dairy milk. If you are still not getting enough calcium in your diet, you can consider the use of calcium supplements.

Protein  vegetarian diet

Another nutrient that can be much more difficult to get sufficient quantities of while adhering to a vegetarian-based diet would be protein. Protein is essential for our bodies and it serves a variety of functions. We must consume sufficient usable quantities of protein for our bodies to function properly. One of the biggest reasons it can be difficult to obtain enough protein through a vegetarian-based diet alone is due to the lack of meat-based protein in the diet. Along with this, some vegetarians even avoid eating any form of dairy as discussed above which happens to be another big source of protein consumption in the average diet. As a result, you might find yourself getting insufficient quantities of protein in your diet. This is why it is so important to pay careful attention to your diet to ensure that you are taking in sufficient protein throughout each and every day if you are following a vegetarian diet.

With that being said, getting in sufficient quantities of protein should be relatively easy as long as you are including different protein dense foods in your diet. However, not all protein sources are equal. Different protein sources are rated in terms of their quality or bio-availability which is essentially how easily they are digested. There are different protein foods that you want to include in your diet as a vegetarian. The key is not only taking in protein in your diet but high quality and easily digestible protein. Some of the most bio-available forms of protein come from meat sources. However, dairy and soy offer nearly identical scores in terms of bio-availability. 3 Because of this, you want to be sure to consume not only the right kinds of protein but more quantities of protein in general if a large portion of your protein intake is going to be through less bio-available or digestible plant-based proteins.

Some of the most protein dense foods that you will find available in a vegetarian-based diet are legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds, eggs, whole grains including quinoa, and dairy products (if applicable). Studies show that while vegetarian diets might inherently provide less protein than non-vegetarian diets if the diet meets the requirements for other essential micro-nutrients, the required intake for protein will be exceeded along with it. You could always add protein supplements to your diet to fill in the gap easily. Various forms of protein supplements you can incorporate are whey protein, whey protein isolate, and even soy protein supplements.

 vegetarian diet Iron

Iron is another one of the nutrients that you want to pay attention to when you are adhering to a vegetarian-based diet because it can make a big difference in determining how healthy your diet is overall. Since vegetarian-based diets typically exclude a lot of the iron-dense foods that you can get in your diet, they typically need to find other sources to get a proper intake of iron. Studies show that vegetarians are much more likely to have significantly lower iron stores than non-vegetarians. 4 This is typically more of a problem in vegetarians in developing countries who primarily consume a limited diet based on unrefined cereals due to the high phytic acid consumption which already inhibits iron and other vitamins and mineral absorption. 5 Studies show that as long as you consume a well varied and well-balanced diet as a vegetarian, you are not at an increased risk of iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. 6 That being said, you need to be sure to have sufficient intake of iron in your diet and it requires more effort than someone that typically consumes a lot of meat in their diets.

Best Sources Of Iron

To get more iron in your diet while adhering to vegetarian restrictions, you are going to want to consume various foods that have high iron content ranging from iron-fortified bread to quinoa, nuts, a variety of legumes, brown rice, and broccoli. All of these foods have sufficient iron density which should allow you to get enough iron in your diet even without meat consumption.

Vitamin D


Vitamin D is another nutrient that you want to pay attention to when you are following a vegetarian diet. One of the biggest issues is again going to stem from vegetarians that avoid dairy altogether. While we typically don’t rely on our food consumption for our vitamin D requirements, it is mostly dairy products that have the fortification to increase our vitamin D intake. Those that are not consuming dairy at all are going to have to rely solely on proper exposure to sunlight to synthesize enough vitamin D to remain healthy. This is typically a non-issue for vegetarians that consume dairy. However, if you are a vegetarian that avoids dairy for any reason, you are going to want to pay close attention to the amount of direct sunlight you are getting to ensure that you are producing enough vitamin D through direct sun exposure. Studies have shown that vegans had lower vitamin D intakes and lower blood levels of vitamin D than those that don’t avoid dairy. 7 Vitamin D supplements are a great way to reduce any sort of vitamin D deficiency in even non-vegetarians.

Vitamin B12 vegetarian diet

This is another essential nutrient that you are likely going to want to keep an eye on when it comes to following a vegetarian diet. B12 is typically found in all foods that come from animal sources. Because of this, those that completely avoid all animal food sources are much more likely to suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency. With that being said, vegetarians that don’t avoid dairy are not likely to have any sort of vitamin B12 deficiency as sufficient quantities can come from eating eggs and drinking milk. 8 Those that do not consume dairy or meat are at a much higher risk for having this type of deficiency as a result of diet.

Best Vitamin B12 Sources

If you are going to be looking to improve your intake of vitamin B12, you should look to get more foods in your diet that contain a lot of B12. Some of the densest foods containing B12 are yogurt, cow milk, and eggs. However, if you are avoiding dairy altogether, you should aim to get fortified cereals in your diet along with nutritional yeast. Studies have shown that vegetarians end up developing vitamin B12 deficiency regardless of the type of diet. 9 Therefore, it’s important to take proactive and preventative measures to ensure that you are getting adequate amounts which might include taking vitamin B12 supplements.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, vegetarians have limitations as a direct result of the lack of animal foods in their diets. With that being said, there are a lot of benefits that can come along with adhering to a vegetarian-based diet so long as you incorporate a strong variety of healthy foods in it. As long as you pay attention to these specific deficiencies that can occur on a vegetarian diet lacking variety, you should be able to follow your diet to improve your health altogether.

Photo Credits: OleksandraNaumenko/, Nadianb/, nehophoto/, bitt24/, EkaterinaMarkelova/

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