A vegetarian diet includes various plant-based foods that provide healthy, essential nutrients. Vegetarians follow a few restrictions, so moving to this type of diet can be challenging for some people.
You can easily transition to a vegetarian diet by gradually reducing the meat and fish you consume and, at the same time, increasing fruits and vegetables. You can replace ingredients in your favorite recipes that contain chicken, pork, or beef with tofu or beans. Many dishes typically only require straightforward substitutions.
What’s important is that you bring variety to your diet to meet all the daily essential nutrients your body needs. Avoid unhealthy choices such as processed foods, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and choose less salt and sugar options. You should also seek advice from a registered dietician or doctor if your current diet is not meeting your dietary needs.
Crucial Nutrients Needed in a Vegetarian Diet
Below is a list of essential nutrients you need for optimal health and the foods that you can add to your diet to obtain them.
Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 include cheese, eggs, and fermented and cultured foods with live bacteria, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, fortified nutritional yeast, soy milk, and yogurt.
Consume various calcium-rich foods and drinks to build and maintain strong bones and teeth and for muscles and nerves to function optimally. You need to eat at least 3 servings of calcium-rich foods daily. The recommended daily allowance is 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium, depending on age. The older you get, the higher the dietary calcium requirement becomes.
Accepted wisdom promotes dairy products as the go-to for calcium supply. Still, it is possible to achieve all you need from plant-based sources, especially leafy greens. Dairy sources of calcium include cheese, milk, and yogurt. If you don’t like using dairy products, other options are fortified soymilk or almond milk, rice milk, soy yogurt, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Consume calcium-set tofu and cereals, broccoli, black beans, chickpeas, soybeans, and leafy greens like collard greens, kale, and turnip greens.
Your bone health depends on vitamin D because efficient calcium absorption is compromised when lacking. Vitamin D supports a healthy immune system and hormone production.
Adequate and healthy exposure to the sun will allow the body to make its own vitamin D. However; many reasons can cause people not to be able to obtain the time in the sun that they need. In these cases, diet and supplementation are essential to compensate for the shortfall.
Vitamin D food sources include eggs, vitamin D-fortified dairy foods and drinks, soy milk, rice milk, orange juice, some cereals, and fatty fish. If you are between 19 and 70, you need 600 IU per day, and if you are more than 70 years of age, 800 IU is recommended. If you have specific needs or bone problems, consult your doctor, as they will advise you on how much vitamin D you need.
Iron is an essential component of red blood cells in carrying oxygen to all parts of your body. Healthy red blood cells prevent iron deficiency anemia and help sustain a healthy immune system. Again, it is a common belief that iron is only found in meat sources. While it may not be as dense in plants as in meat, there are plant foods that can provide nutritional requirements.
Although iron deficiency can be problematic for anyone, whether vegetarian or not, over-consumption is just as dangerous. Exceeding your required daily intake can have harmful effects on your body. Don’t take an additional iron supplement unless your doctor advises you to.
Iron-rich foods include dark leafy greens such as spinach and Swiss chard, dried fruits, eggs, fortified cereals, nuts, pulses such as kidney beans, lentils and peas, and soybeans. Eat them simultaneously with foods rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, cabbage, citrus fruits, peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes, to assist your body in absorbing the iron you ingest.
Iodine plays a vital part in the production of thyroid hormones which regulate the metabolism, growth, and function of your body’s major organs. Many rely on iodized table salt for their allowance, but healthier sources include edible seaweed, eggs, and milk. Celtic or Himalayan salts contain sodium chloride and a full spectrum of necessary minerals and trace minerals.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A diet abundant in omega-3 fatty acids is needed for heart and brain health, cell membrane formation, and immune system function. Omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce your risk of heart disease and inflammation.
Two omega-3s, the DHA and EPA, are abundant in oily fish and seafood sources. The third omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), comes from plant sources but is also converted to DHA and EPA in small amounts. The dietary guideline for ALA is 1.1 grams daily for women and 1.6 grams for men.
Vegetarians can also take an omega-3 supplement from an algae source of DHA and EPA and from fortified products to increase their omega-3 intake. You should eat not less than five servings of various fruits and vegetables daily. Other plant-based sources are chia seeds, flaxseeds, soybeans, seaweed, walnuts, and eggs.
Another essential nutrient is protein. It is composed of amino acids crucial to building and repairing the body’s cells. Consuming protein-rich foods helps in maintaining healthy bones, muscles, organs, and skin. Aim to consume at least 20 grams of protein every meal.
You can eat various food sources of complete protein throughout the day: almonds and almond butter, eggs, meat alternatives such as tofu, dairy products, legumes, nuts, nut butter, pulses, soy products, tempeh, and textured vegetable protein.
Zinc is an essential nutrient that provides many vital functions in the body. It is not produced naturally, but you can get it from foods and supplements. Its primary roles are protein formation, DNA creation, healing damaged tissue, cell growth, boosting the defense against oxidative stress, and strengthening the immune system.
Consuming foods high in zinc is vital as it is not efficiently absorbed in our bodies. You need to take 8 to 11 mg of zinc daily, depending on your age and gender, but not exceed the recommended limit of 40 mg per day. You can get the zinc you need in a well-balanced diet of plant foods, dairy products, and seafood. The best food sources are almonds, cashews, cheese, chickpeas, eggs, milk, pumpkin seeds, shellfish, legumes, soy, whole grains, and yogurt.
A vegetarian diet can quickly achieve a healthy balance of the essential nutrients needed for a healthy, vital life. Those transitioning from a meat-based diet should ensure they eat a wide variety of non-meat sources to meet all nutritional requirements. Be aware of your personal dietary needs so that you know the type and amount of nutrients that can nourish your body completely.