How Can I Get Enough Nutrients on a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet?

healthy vegetarian tipsOne of the most common questions vegetarians hear from non-vegetarians is "Where do you get your protein?" Of course, the folks who wonder this may guzzle chicken wings by the bucket and soda by the gallon, never stopping to think where they get their fiber or vitamin C. Vegetarian, vegan or not, we all need to consider the health effects of what we eat. While it's true that proteinis necessary, equally important for vegetarians are calcium and iron, and, if you’re vegan, vitamin B12.

Answer: If you’re eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you are eating one of the healthiest diets on the planet. You do, however, need to make sure you get a few vital nutrients.

Vegetarian Protein
The little known truth about protein is that most of us get too much, not too little of it. Women need about 45 grams per day and men need around 55 grams. One cup of tofu contains about 20 grams of protein, so women, eat some tofu and you’re almost halfway there! Lots of foods contain protein and if you’re eating a well-balanced diet, you’re probably consuming more than enough protein without even thinking about it. Even though it’s quite easy to get plenty of protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet, its a good idea to make sure you’re eating a variety of protein-rich foods. If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you’ll likely get sufficient protein from eggs and dairy without even trying, but if you’re vegan, here are some high protein vegan foods to include in your diet: tofu, seitan, veggie burgers, soy, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, brown rice and whole grains.

Kids need lots of calcium while they’re still growing, but adults need calcium too! If you’re a smoker, you will need to get more calcium, as your absorption and retention levels are lower. Strong bones throughout life come from both calcium in the diet and exercise, so for optimum health, be sure you get both. Although milk is a source of calcium, you certainly don’t need milk to get plenty of calcium. Here’s some calcium-rich foods to try: spinach, collard greens, kale, soy milk, fortified orange juice, sesame seeds, tahini broccoli, almonds, carrots, and rice milk. Be sure to shake your soy milk and orange juice before drinking, as the calcium can settle to the bottom.

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that iron levels in vegetarians and vegans in the UK were, on average, higher than those of the general population, showing that it’s possible to get more than enough iron on a vegan diet. Just like with protein, however, you should still be sure to eat a balanced diet to ensure you are getting enough iron. Drinking coffee and tea, particularly with meals, can limit your absorption and should be consumed at least three hours before a meal. For an iron boost, try eating tofu, lentils, spinach, soy, chickpeas and hummus. Vitamin C also increases the absorption of iron, so if you take an iron supplement, wash it down with some orange juice!

Vitamin B12
Vegetarians don’t have to worry about vitamin B12, and many people disagree about whether or not vegans need a B12 supplement. I like to go with "better safe than sorry" on this one. B12 deficiency is extremely rare amongst both vegans and non-vegetarians alike, but is a serious issue when it does occur.

There are a few things vegans should know about B12.

  • Your body has the ability to store B12 for a number of years, so if you’re newly vegan, you may have sufficient reserves for another decade, but unless you have your B12 levels tested regularly there is no way of knowing.

  • Nutritional yeast is the best food source for B12, although miso and some seaweeds contain a minimal amount as well.

  • Although nutritional yeast is a great source and an incredibly tasty addition to just about everything, some doctors suggest its best not to rely on a single source and recommend taking a vitamin supplement at least once a week, even if you regularly eat nutritional yeast. So if you’re vegan, please be better safe than sorry and take a supplement at least once a week.

  • Once again, if you’re a smoker, your body will lose nutrients, so you need extra B12.

  • Expectant mothers and infants have special B12 needs as well. If you’re vegan and expecting, take a supplement everyday.

Remember, eating a healthy vegetarian diet is one of the best things you can do for your short-term and long-term health. As a vegetarian or vegan, you will lower your cholesterol and have a greatly reduced risk for colon cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. There is a big difference, however, between eating a vegan diet of french fries and soda, and a well-balanced plant-based diet. If you’re still exploring how to be vegetarian or vegan, its likely that you’re not as familiar with your body’s nutritional needs so its a good idea to take a multi-vitamin. A B12 supplement is always a good idea for vegans and those who eat a mostly vegan diet.

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