Whether you're a vegetarian vet or learning about a vegetarian diet for beginners, this article shares how to have a balanced, healthy vegetarian diet plan. This article discusses nutrients necessary for a balanced vegetarian diet, including protein for vegetarians and vegans and other tips.
In a recent Nutrition to Fit Reader Survey I asked what questions y'all have about nutrition/ what specific nutrition topics you wanted more information on. Several responses were along the lines of wanting to know how to eat a balanced vegetarian diet.
I want to be totally transparent and say that I am not a vegetarian myself. My professional and personal eating philosophy is that different things work for different people. If you enjoy animal products and they make you feel more energized and nourished, you can incorporate those in your diet while still eating mostly plant-based foods.
That said, a vegetarian and even a vegan diet can be an incredibly healthy and ethical option for many individuals, and many do report it helps them feel their best and most energized! If you are a vegetarian there are ways you can ensure you're eating a balanced vegetarian diet.
Different Types of a Balanced Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet isn't a blanket term that encompasses all vegetarians. While all vegetarians avoid meat and poultry, there are different types of vegetarian diets that include different things:
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs (the most common form of vegetarianism)
- Lacto-Vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs
- Ovo-Vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy products
- Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other animal-derived products (i.e. honey from bees)
All types of vegetarian diets include a focus on vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds, and other non-animal based foods. This can sometimes make it easier for vegetarians to consume a more balanced diet than omnivores!
Important Nutrients for a Balanced Vegetarian Diet
Vegan and vegetarian dietary requirements are no different than for anyone else. That said, some nutrients may be easier and others harder to obtain. Many on a vegetarian or vegan diet find their diets naturally tend to have less saturated fat, trans fat, calories, and higher amounts of fiber and micronutrients, etc. On the other hand, some nutrients can be at a greater risk for deficiency for vegans and vegetarians.
Protein for Vegans and Vegetarians
Protein is important for maintaining muscles, bones, healthy skin, and organs. Many are often concerned about whether vegans and vegetarians can consume enough protein, but there are plenty of plant-based protein sources (including small amounts of protein in vegetables) that all add up! Plant-based sources of protein for vegans and vegetarians include legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, soy products like tofu and tempeh, and meat substitutes. Vegetarians who consume eggs and/ or dairy will also be able to increase their protein intake through these foods, too. Just be sure to consume a variety of protein sources throughout the day!
Iron for Vegans and Vegetarians
Iron is critical for red blood cell production to help carry oxygen throughout your body. Plant-based sources of iron for vegans and vegetarians include dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals and other products, dark leafy greens, whole grains, and dried fruit. Unfortunately these plant-based sources of iron aren't as easily absorbed by the body as animal sources.
It's also important to note that some nutrients, like calcium, can interfere with iron absorption. If you're taking a calcium supplement or love having calcium-fortified juice and soy milk in the morning, be sure to focus on consuming iron-rich foods at other times of day.
Vitamin C is a nutrient that can enhance the absorption of iron. Trying using fresh citrus in a dressing on a dark leafy green salad or adding red bell peppers and broccoli to a lentil stir fry.
Try the NTF 5-a-Day smoothie! The Berry Pea Green Smoothie pictured above has iron-rich dark leafy greens and peas paired with vitamin C-rich berries!
Zinc for Vegans and Vegetarians
Zinc is a part of enzymes and important for cell division and protein formation. Zinc for vegans and vegetarians can be harder to obtain, as it's not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is animal sources. If a vegetarian consumes cheese, dairy is a good source of zinc for vegetarians. Other sources of zinc for vegans and vegetarians include soy products, legumes, nuts, wheat germ, and whole grains.
Calcium for Vegans and Vegetarians
Calcium can help build and maintain strong bones, help with muscle function, and help with nerve signaling. Milk and dairy sources are often thought of as the go-to sources for calcium, but they're not the only calcium sources. Sources of calcium for vegans and vegetarians include dark leafy greens (i.e. kale, collard greens), broccoli, and calcium-fortified food sources (i.e. tofu, juices, cereals, soy milks and other fortified milks, and more).
Try this Cranberry Crunch Broccoli Slaw for a tasty way to eat some calcium-rich broccoli!
Vitamin D for Vegans and Vegetarians
Vitamin D is another nutrient that's important for bone health, as it's key for calcium absorption. Sources of vitamin D for vegans and vegetarians include some fortified dairy and plant-based milks, some fortified cereals, and some fortified margarines. Additionally, vitamin D can also be obtained from sun exposure. However, in some climates, especially in the winter, sun exposure alone can be really difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D. You can have your doctor check your vitamin D levels and turn to supplementation if low.
Vitamin B12 for Vegans and Vegetarians
Vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal products, which makes it a nutrient of concern for vegetarians, particularly vegans. Vitamin B12 is essential for DNA synthesis, red blood cell production, and cell metabolism - really important!
Sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans include nutritional yeast and fortified products, like fortified cereals. However, it's still possible to be deficient and many vegans especially may find themselves needing to supplement with vitamin B12. It's easy for your doctor to check, though, with a simple blood test. Don't hesitate to ask your physician to check your vitamin B12 levels if you're a vegan, given the difficulties it can be to obtain adequate intakes!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegans and Vegetarians
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for heart health, but omega-3 intake may be inadequate for individuals who avoid sources of omega-3 fatty acids used most efficiently by the body, like fish and eggs. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids for vegans and vegetarians include canola oil, soy oil, walnuts, ground flax seed, and soybeans. However, these plant-based sources aren't used as efficiently by the body and some vegans and vegetarians may find themselves needing supplements and/ or fortified products.
Iodine for Vegans and Vegetarians
Iodine is an essential nutrient for thyroid regulation, but many food sources aren't a great fit for vegans and vegetarians (i.e. tuna, shrimp, eggs, dairy). Sources of iodine for vegans and vegetarians include seaweed, prunes, lima beans, and iodized salt. While most individuals don't struggle to meet salt recommendations, if you're at risk for an iodine deficiency it's important to consume iodized salt, and trendy sea salts and himalayan pink salts aren't often/ always iodized. By using iodized salt, just ¼ teaspoon daily will meet daily needs of iodine for vegans and vegetarians.
How to Eat a Balanced Vegetarian Diet
While you can see that there are potential nutritional concerns with a vegetarian or vegan diet, they're definitely not automatically a problem. Just things to be aware and proactive about. Of course, as with any diet, you could subsist entirely off of plant-based foods like Oreos and french fries - but that's not very balanced and nourishing, now is it? All things in moderation and awareness and proactivity are key for eating a balanced vegetarian diet to help you feel your best!
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