A vegetarian or vegan diet can have a lot of benefits for your health. When meat isn’t part of your diet, you consume less saturated fat and cholesterol that could affect your health. It’s also great for increasing your intake of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables – when steak’s not on the plate, there’s more room for greens! Studies have even shown that vegetarians may be at reduced risk for some cancers and other health conditions (read more here).
However, this doesn’t mean a meatless diet is for everyone or that it’s without its challenges. Animal products are a good source of several key nutrients. Everyone should pay attention to their nutrient levels, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan, the following seven are ones you should pay particular attention to.
1. Vitamin B12
One of eight essential B vitamins, B12 is important for metabolism, red blood cell formation, central nervous system health, and more. The first signs of inadequate B12 intake can include anemia, weakness, fatigue, and mood issues. And animal products are the only foods that provide significant amounts. (A serving of crimini mushrooms has B12 – but only about 3% of the RDA.)
Vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy still get some in their diet – a serving of cheese, eggs, or milk can provide up to about 25 percent of your daily B12 – but the highest dietary sources are fish, seafood, and red meat.
Taking supplemental B12 can be a smart idea for vegans and vegetarians – and lots of other individuals, too. It turns out many Americans could be at risk for B12 deficiency.
As a vegetarian, I supplement with B12. I recommend New Chapter’s Coenzyme B Food Complex. A vegetarian-friendly, probiotic, whole-foods supplement, it provides all B vitamins, including extra B12. (It’s often recommended to take B12 along with other B vitamins since they perform many functions together.) It’s easy on my stomach, which has been a problem for me with other supplements I’ve tried. It also includes herbs for stress and immune support as well as a proprietary blend of superfoods and spices. I definitely notice a difference when I take these. They’re so great for my mood that I call them my “Be Happy” vitamins.
If you’re looking for something with fewer bells and whistles, try MegaFood Vegan B12. Or if you’re taking a multivitamin like most doctors and health professionals recommend, make sure it has B12 to meet your needs.
It’s pretty common knowledge that the best source of iron is animal tissue like red meat and organs. After all, it’s an essential part of healthy blood. Iron is an important part of hemoglobin, the part of blood that helps transport oxygen throughout the body.
Vegetarian or not, iron deficiency is fairly common, especially among women. Women ages 19 to 50 need about 18 mg a day – and more during pregnancy or if they experience particularly heavy menses. Men in the same age bracket on the other hand only need about 8 mg.
Some plant-eaters may argue that several non-meat foods contain iron, and while this is true, that iron often isn’t as well absorbed by our bodies so you might not get as much as you think.
If you’re low on iron, you’ll likely feel fatigued – physically and mentally. Low iron counts can also affect your immune system health.
Many multivitamins contain iron to keep you covered, but there are also supplements for just iron. But remember, unlike many vitamins, iron isn’t water soluble. Excess iron can accumulate in the body and cause health problems.
In addition, some people experience minor gastrointestinal issues (ie constipation) when supplementing with iron, so go for a good-quality product that minimizes those effects like Solgar’s Gentle Iron. Or try Gaia Herbs’ Plant Force Liquid Iron for a little less iron and a little more boost.
It’s probably not too far off base to say that when the majority of people think of calcium, they think of milk. So if you’re a vegetarian who’s okay with drinking milk and eating dairy products (yes, there are different kinds of vegetarians), you’re fine. But if you’re vegan – or lactose-intolerant – you might need to pay a little more attention to your calcium intake.
The good news is that lots of healthy foods contain calcium, like greens such as kale and collard greens as well as broccoli and some nuts and beans. Many products are also fortified with calcium, including soy milk. Just keep in mind that plant sources don’t contain as much as dairy, so it’ll take a little more effort to reach your requirement.
If you’re having trouble getting enough calcium, definitely supplement.
4. Vitamin D
An important partner of calcium, vitamin D is important for bone health as well as the function of vital organs, the immune system, and more. (Get more information here.)
Found in very few foods to begin with, the list can get even shorter if you don’t eat animal products like fish and fish oils, egg yolks, or cheese. Some foods are fortified with it, especially milk.
“But what about the sun?” you ask. Yes, our bodies can produce vitamin D from sunlight, but studies have shown that our indoor-lifestyles aren’t very conducive to this method. In fact, the CDC estimates that nearly 25 percent of Americans may not get enough vitamin D (click here to read more). And, no, that 25 percent doesn’t represent just the vegetarians and vegans in the nation.
As we learn more about vitamin D, more and more health professionals are recommending their patients take a vitamin D supplement – especially women.
There are plenty of supplements to choose from, but many of the include ingredients sourced from animals. For a completely vegan option, try Nordic Naturals’ Vitamin D3 Vegan.
5. Omega 3
The word about this essential fatty acid is spreading every day. If you hear someone talking about a fish oil supplement, this is what they’re after. It’s important for your heart, immune system, brain, and more.
One of the most common sources is fish – hence the fish oil supplements. It’s also found in grass-fed beef and eggs from chickens that have been given supplemental fish oil.
If you’re avoiding animal sources, there are several options. Nuts and seeds like walnuts and hemp seed are good options, as well as edamame.
And although fish oil supplements are very popular, there’s still a few options for those looking for a meatless option, like Nordic Naturals’ Algae Omega.
Zinc is a critical mineral for the immune system, cell growth and repair, fertility, and more. If you’re low on zinc, you’ll likely feel lethargic and have more difficulty recovering from wounds and illness.
The best dietary source is by far the infamous oyster. A serving will more than cover your daily requirement. Beef is another good source, reaching up to about 45 percent RDA depending on the type. Beans are one of the next best bets with about 20 percent. However, plant sources often aren’t as well absorbed because other components in foods like legumes and grains can bind zinc, keeping your body from accessing it. Different preparation methods such as soaking before cooking may help, but you still may need to supplement.
For many people, a quality multivitamin is a good way to get enough zinc. But if you do opt for a zinc supplement, go for something with a form that’s well absorbed, like Solgar’s Zinc Picolinate.
And lastly, the no-brainer. Meat is an amazing source of protein. The next best are animal products like eggs and dairy. But to say that you can’t get protein from anywhere else is simply not true. There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein. It might take a little more work and creativity to meet your protein (and amino acid) needs without meet, but it can be done. For a list of some great meatless options, click the image.
Let us know your about your experiences with dietary restrictions and supplements. What do you recommend for good health?