Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
Whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, researchers agree a well-planned diet that is primarily plant-based can meet nutrient needs – and has even been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease1 and type 2 diabetes2, decreased cholesterol3, and reduced obesity-related inflammation4. It just might take a little extra work and creativity.
The key word in the above paragraph is “well-planned.” Nutrients that may be more difficult, though not impossible, for vegetarians and vegans to ensure adequacy of include B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.
While the exact nutrient needs and deficiency risks will vary person to person and by exact food intake, this is an example of how an adequately nutritious day in the life of a vegetarian or vegan might look.
How much and how often?
Meet Kara. She’s a hypothetical vegetarian who is moderately active – she gets between 8,000 and 10,000 steps per day – and in good health. She eats three to four meals or snacks per day. Here are her nutrient goals:
- Protein: 65-75 grams per day or 15-20 grams per meal/snack
- B12: 2.4 micrograms per day or 0.6-0.8 micrograms per meal/snack
- Iron: 18 milligrams per day or 4.5-6 milligrams per meal/snack
- Calcium: 1000 milligrams per day or 250-335 milligrams per meal/snack
- Zinc: 8 milligrams per day or 2-2.5 milligrams per meal/snack
- ALA (essential fatty acid that must come from diet): 4 grams per day or 1-1.33 grams per meal/snack
But what does that mean in actual food?
Kara might start out the day with two pieces of whole-wheat toast with two tablespoons of peanut butter, one tablespoon of chopped walnuts, and a drizzle of honey. This would provide her with 15.95 grams of protein, 2.8 milligrams of iron, 118 milligrams of calcium, 1.6 milligrams of zinc, and 1.4 grams of ALA.
Kara’s lunch of one cup of Moroccan lentils and brown rice with two cupped handfuls of cruciferous salad mix and nut seed mix with a dressing of avocado, lemon juice, salt, and pepper would provide her with 22 grams of protein, 10.5 milligrams of iron, 204 milligrams of calcium, and 7.65 milligrams of zinc.
Kara could snack on a handful of dried chickpeas, a handful of walnuts, an apple, and a glass of Plant Protein milk. This would provide her with 22.5 grams of protein, 2.7 micrograms of B12, 5.12 milligrams of iron, 534.9 milligrams of calcium, 2.38 milligrams of zinc, and 3.1 grams of ALA.
Dinner of teriyaki tofu and braised ginger Swiss chard over vegetable stir-fried quinoa (hold the egg) would provide Kara with 32.4 grams of protein, 9.5 milligrams of iron, 426.5 milligrams of calcium, and 2.6 milligrams of zinc.
This meal plan would bring Kara’s estimated total nutrients for the day to 78.85 grams of protein, 2.7 micrograms of B12, 27.9 milligrams of iron, 1280.4 milligrams of calcium, 14.57 milligrams of zinc, and 4.6 grams of ALA. She met her nutrient goals!
Problem areas for vegetarians and vegans:
Based on Kara’s day above, you may notice a theme that dietitians and researchers have also noted: Other than the fortified plant milk, there are no sources of B12 in Kara’s diet. People who exclusively eat plants will need fortified foods or a supplement to meet their requirements for this important vitamin, which is needed for proper neurological function, DNA synthesis, and the formation of red blood cells.
Then there’s vitamin D, which could be a nutrient concern for anyone, regardless of diet. Our primary source of vitamin D is the sun, and that means there are limits – based on latitude, season, outdoor time – in our ability to get enough of it. It’s rather difficult to get vitamin D via your diet, so it‘s best to get some objective measures for optimizing your blood levels. Consulting with an expert – and possibly taking supplements – is the best approach toward optimizing this nutrient that has large roles in bone and musculoskeletal health. This advice also applies to B12.
Finally, while ALA is found in plants and can be converted to EPA and DHA — the primary omega-3 fatty acids of interest — this conversion isn’t efficiently done by the body. Arivale typically recommends vegans and vegetarians take an omega-3 supplement, which can be derived from algae if they want to avoid fish.
The benefits of a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is clear. If you choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, just ensure you’re making quality choices that incorporate these nutrients of concern regularly. When in doubt, dietary analysis with a Registered Dietitian and testing for some of these nutrients can ensure you’re covering your bases.
(Arivale Coaches Meghan Lyle, MPH, RDN and Lydia D’Antona, MS, RDN contributed to this story.)
- Satija A, Hu FB. (2018). “Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health. Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine. 2018 Feb 13. pii: S1050-1738(18)30024-0. doi: 10.1016/j.tcm.2018.02.004.
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Borgi L, Willett WC, Manson JE, Sun Q, Hu FB. (2016). “Plant-based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies.” PLoS Medicine. 2016 Jun 14;13(6):e1002039. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039.
- Yokoyama Y, Levin SM, Barnard ND. (2017). “Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Nutrition Reviews. 2017 Sep 1;75(9):683-698. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nux030.
- Eichelmann F, Schwingshackl L, Fedirko V, Aleksandrova K. (2016). “Effect of plant-based diets on obesity-related inflammatory profiles: a systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention trials.” Obesity Reviews. 2016 Nov;17(11):1067-1079. doi: 10.1111/obr.12439.