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  • Dr. Norbert Martin, DPT

Vegetarian Nutrition 101: How to Meet Your Dietary Needs

Updated: Mar 17





By Dr. Norbert Martin, DPT

Healthy vegetarian burger


Are you a vegetarian or thinking of becoming one? If so, you might be wondering how to eat healthy and balanced without meat, poultry, fish, and other animal products. You might have heard some myths and misconceptions about vegetarian nutrition that make you doubt your choice. You might have some questions or concerns about your dietary needs and how to meet them. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll show you how to plan a balanced vegetarian diet that meets your dietary needs. We’ll also bust some common myths and misconceptions about vegetarian nutrition and give you some tips and tricks to make your meals more delicious and varied. By the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to thrive on a plant-based lifestyle!


Essential Nutrients for Vegetarians

One of the main challenges of vegetarianism is getting enough of some essential nutrients that are either not found or found in lower amounts in plant foods. These nutrients include protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and others. These nutrients are important for your health and well-being, as they support various functions in your body, such as growth, repair, immunity, metabolism, oxygen transport, bone health, nerve function, and more. If you don’t get enough of these nutrients, you might experience some symptoms, such as fatigue, weakness, pale skin, numbness, tingling, cognitive impairment, and increased susceptibility to infections. To avoid these problems, you need to pay attention to your intake of these nutrients and make sure you get enough of them from your diet or supplements. Here are some of the best sources of these nutrients for vegetarians:


  • Protein: Protein is the building block of the body and is involved in many vital functions. You need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. You can get plenty of protein from plant foods, such as beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, quinoa, and soy milk. Some of these foods, such as soy, quinoa, and buckwheat, contain all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot make. Others, such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, are missing one or more essential amino acids. But don’t worry, you don’t need to eat special combinations of foods at every meal to get complete proteins. As long as you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day, you’ll get all the essential amino acids you need.

  • Iron: Iron is a mineral that helps transport oxygen in the blood and supports the production of red blood cells. You need about 8 milligrams of iron per day if you’re a man and 18 milligrams if you’re a woman. You need more iron than non-vegetarians, as the iron from plant foods (called non-heme iron) is less well absorbed than the iron from animal foods (called heme iron). You can boost your iron intake by eating iron-rich plant foods, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, beans, lentils, tofu, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and fortified cereals. You can also enhance the absorption of non-heme iron by eating foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage, along with iron-rich foods.

  • Calcium: Calcium is a mineral that is essential for bone health, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and blood clotting. You need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. You can get enough calcium from plant foods, such as kale, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, okra, almonds, sesame seeds, tahini, fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, and fortified cereals. Some vegetarians who consume dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, can also get calcium from these sources.

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is involved in the production of DNA, red blood cells, and nerve function. You need about 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, so vegetarians need to get it from other sources. You can get vitamin B12 by consuming fortified foods, such as soy milk, cereals, nutritional yeast, and meat alternatives, or by taking a supplement.


Tips and Tricks for Balanced Eating

Now that you know the essential nutrients for vegetarians and how to get them, here are some tips and tricks to help you plan a balanced vegetarian diet that meets your dietary needs:


  • Eat a variety of foods from different food groups, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy or dairy alternatives. This will ensure that you get a range of nutrients, flavors, and textures in your diet.

  • Use MyPlate: https://www.myplate.gov/ as a guide to help you create balanced meals. Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with grains (preferably whole grains), and a quarter with protein (preferably plant-based protein). Add a serving of dairy or dairy alternative on the side or as a beverage.

  • Experiment with different cuisines and recipes that feature vegetarian dishes, such as Indian, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern. You can find many delicious and nutritious vegetarian recipes online or in cookbooks.

  • Use herbs, spices, sauces, and condiments to add flavor and variety to your meals. For example, you can use curry, turmeric, cumin, paprika, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, tahini, salsa, pesto, and hummus to enhance your dishes.

  • Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time and stock up on staples, such as grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, canned or frozen vegetables, and fortified foods. This will help you avoid running out of food or resorting to unhealthy options when you are hungry or busy.

  • Consult a registered dietitian or a health care provider if you have any questions or concerns about your vegetarian diet or if you have any special dietary needs, such as pregnancy, lactation, allergies, or medical conditions.


Myths and Misconceptions about Vegetarian Nutrition

There are some myths and misconceptions about vegetarian nutrition that may discourage or confuse people who are interested in or following a vegetarian diet. Here are some of the most common ones and the facts behind them:


  • Myth: Vegetarians do not get enough protein.

  • Fact: Vegetarians can get enough protein by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources. The recommended daily intake of protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which can be easily met by vegetarians.

  • Myth: Vegetarians need to eat special combinations of foods at every meal to get complete proteins.

  • Fact: Vegetarians do not need to eat special combinations of foods at every meal to get complete proteins, as long as they eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day. The body can store and use amino acids from different foods at different times, so there is no need to worry about matching foods at each meal.

  • Myth: Vegetarians are more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia.

  • Fact: Vegetarians are not more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia than non-vegetarians, as long as they eat enough iron-rich plant foods and foods that enhance iron absorption. The recommended daily intake of iron for adults is 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women. Vegetarians need to consume more iron than non-vegetarians, as the iron from plant foods is less well absorbed than the iron from animal foods.

  • Myth: Vegetarians are more prone to osteoporosis and bone fractures.

  • Fact: Vegetarians are not more prone to osteoporosis and bone fractures than non-vegetarians, as long as they eat enough calcium-rich plant foods and get adequate vitamin D and physical activity. The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 1,000 milligrams. Vegetarians can get enough calcium by eating calcium-rich plant foods or dairy products. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium and maintain bone health. Vitamin D is naturally produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight, but some people may not get enough vitamin D from this source, especially in winter or in areas with low sunlight. Vegetarians can get vitamin D by consuming fortified foods or taking a supplement. Physical activity, especially weight-bearing exercises, can also help strengthen the bones and prevent osteoporosis and fractures.

Vegetarianism is not a one-size-fits-all approach. There are different types of vegetarians, including lacto-ovo vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs, lacto vegetarians who consume dairy, and ovo vegetarians who consume eggs. This guide focuses on a general vegetarian diet.



The Bottom Line

Vegetarianism can be a healthy and satisfying way of life. By planning your meals, incorporating a variety of foods, and addressing potential nutrient deficiencies, you can ensure you're getting everything your body needs.


Thank you for reading this article and happy eating! Share it with your friends and anyone that may be interested in the topic.




References

  1. Tong T Y N, Appleby P N, Bradbury K E, Perez-Cornago A, Travis R C, Clarke R et al. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study BMJ 2019; 366 :l4897 doi:10.1136/bmj.l4897

  2. Obersby D, Chappell DC, Dunnett A, Tsiami AA. Plasma total homocysteine status of vegetarians compared with omnivores: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2013 Mar 14;109(5):785-94. doi: 10.1017/S000711451200520X. Epub 2013 Jan 8. PMID: 23298782.

  3. Kahleova H, Fleeman R, Hlozkova A, Holubkov R, Barnard ND. A plant-based diet in overweight individuals in a 16-week randomized clinical trial: metabolic benefits of plant protein. Nutr Diabetes. 2018 Nov 2;8(1):58. doi: 10.1038/s41387-018-0067-4. PMID: 30405108; PMCID: PMC6221888.

  4. Tomova A, Bukovsky I, Rembert E, Yonas W, Alwarith J, Barnard ND, Kahleova H. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota. Front Nutr. 2019 Apr 17;6:47. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00047. PMID: 31058160; PMCID: PMC6478664.



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