Vegetarian Nutrition

vegetarian nutrition

Vegetarian Nutrition

Meatless But Not Hapless

Being a healthy vegetarian is about more than simply eliminating meat from your diet. Whenever you restrict what you eat, especially with regard to a whole group of foods, you will need to educate yourself about the potential nutritional deficiencies and the foods that will address them. You can be healthy eating a vegetarian diet, but you need to do it in an informed and purposeful way.

Vegetarian Nutrition and Protein

The major nutritional concern for those pursuing a vegetarian diet is getting enough good quality protein. Scientifically speaking, proteins are organic compounds made up of building blocks called “amino acids.” There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of them are considered “essential” because the body cannot make them, and therefore, they must be supplied by the food you eat. This information is important to vegetarians because, if your diet does not contain enough of these essential amino acids, you may suffer the effects of protein deficiency.

Complete and complementary proteins

Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called“complete proteins.” These complete protein foods are generally animal foods. Plant foods do not, as a rule, have complete proteins, but by eating combinations of plant foods, called “complementary proteins,” you can obtain a complete protein.

-For example, when you eat beans with rice, such as is often found in Mexican cuisine, you are obtaining a complete protein. The beans and rice complement each other, in that each has some of the essential amino acids and when eaten together, they provide all of the essential amino acids.

It is now generally accepted by scientists that it is not necessary to eat these complementary proteins at the same meal. However, vegetarians do need to eat a varied diet of high quality plant foods in order to get enough of the amino acids the body needs to have a good supply of complete proteins.

Of course, the issue of complete proteins is not as critical for lacto- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians, since they include high quality and complete proteins in their diet in the form of dairy products and, in the latter case, eggs.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Your body actually reuses the protein from the cells of your gastrointestinal lining when they are sloughed off and replaced with news ones. This allows you to have protein available from another source besides the food you eat. What an amazing creation we are!


How much Protein do I need?

The answer to this question is not an easy one. The amount of protein needed can vary based on age, gender, genetics, health status and the quality of the protein. It is generally thought that we need about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight every day. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need about 52.5 grams of protein each day.

150 ÷ 20 = 7.5 7.5grams x 7 = 52.5grams

Many health experts put it a different way by saying that we should get about 30% of our calories each day from protein sources. Protein has about 4 calories per gram, so if you consume 2400 calories a day, about 720 of them should be from protein.

2400 calories x 30% = 720 calories

Whichever method you use, it is safe to say that if you get all of your protein from plant foods, you should probably aim for moderately higher amounts, in order to assure that you are getting enough complete proteins to maintain healthy tissues.

So which plant foods have protein?

Although most of the foods you eat have some protein in them, there are some plant foods that are significant sources of good quality protein. These are the legumes, grains, some vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Lentils… Split peas… Kidney beans… Pinto beans… Black beans… Soybeans… Tofu… Tempeh…Garbanzo beans… Navy beans… Peanuts… Peanut Butter… Rice… Wheat…. Barley… Oats… Peas… Kale… Okra… Walnuts… Brazil Nuts… Almonds… Pumpkin Seeds… Sesame Seeds… Tahini…

How many servings of protein do I need for vegetarian nutrition?

When nutritionists talk about how many servings we need of a particular nutrient, it is usually in reference to the “Food Pyramid,” which is their way to visualize the relationship of the five food groups, and how much of each group you should consume each day. By this standard, depending on your weight, you need two to three 3-ounce servings of meat, fish, poultry or meat analog each day. (A meat analog is a soy or grain based product that is manufactured to look and taste like certain meat products.)

After twenty years, the USDA changed their visual representation for a healthy diet from a pyramid to a simpler concept called "MyPlate." This latest model shows a dinner plate divided into four portions for Protein, Vegetables, Fruits and Grains, with a side of Dairy.

Click here for more general nutrition information.

A serving of protein

For non-meat protein sources, a serving of protein, which is 2 cups cooked legumes or rice, or 2 Tablespoons of seeds, nuts, peanut butter, or other nut butters, is equivalent to only about 1/3 of the protein in a serving of meat. Tempeh and tofu can also be included in this group with a serving size of about 4 oz. Based on this information, vegetarians—particularly vegans—should include six to nine servings of a variety of plant-based protein foods in their diet each day.

Thus, if you include two servings of a variety of plant-based protein with each meal—breakfast, lunch and dinner—and a serving with a snack or two each day, you will easily provide enough protein for your body’s needs. When you consider all of the varieties of nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, whole grains and even meat analogs available, it should not be difficult to find your six to nine servings of plant-based protein each day.

Vitamins to watch

There are two vitamins that are of particular concern to vegetarians, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D.

-Vitamin B12 is unique

Vitamin B12 is special among the B vitamins because it contains cobalt, which is a metallic element. The presence of this ion is the basis for all the specialized functions of Vitamin B12, including its role as part of a co-enzyme important in new cell formation, its involvement in releasing energy from fats and protein and its importance in helping to make hemoglobin.

It is also unique among vitamins because it is found almost exclusively in animal foods. A deficiency of Vitamin B12 is uncommon because the body is able to continuously reuse this B vitamin. However, if the stomach does not contain the proper amount of hydrochloric acid, there may be poor absorption of Vitamin B12. This is particularly prevalent among the elderly, who may have developed gastritis, a chronic inflammation of the lining of the stomach.

It is recommended that healthy adults get about 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 each day, a very small amount. However, not all sources of Vitamin B12 are created equal. There are some plant-based foods on the market whose labels suggest that they are a good source of Vitamin B12. However, the form the vitamin takes may not be a form that is available to your body. If you take an oral supplement of this vitamin, you should know that of the amount listed on the label, only a portion will actually be absorbed by your body.

Some researchers suggest that the sub-lingual (under the tongue) versions of Vitamin B12 are the best way to take this vitamin as a supplement.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: One of the few plant sources of Vitamin B12 is the red skins of peanuts and peanut butter made from redskin peanuts that includes the skins will have some Vitamin B12 in it that other peanut butters would not have.


Expecting a blessed event?

Due to its close connection to folate, and its role in preventing birth defects, it is recommended that pregnant women and women who are planning to get pregnant make sure they get enough Vitamin B12. Since these defects occur early in the development of the baby, and may occur before a woman even knows she is pregnant, getting enough of both of these B vitamins is important for all women for whom pregnancy is a possibility. This is particularly important to women who are vegetarians—and most particularly for vegan women.

-Caveat for Vegetarian Nutrition: You should know that Vitamin B12 is destroyed by microwave heating, so you may want to cook animal foods and fortified cereals using other methods.


MY TWO CENTS about microwaves and vegetarian nutrition

There is some serious research that suggests that microwaving your food may not be the best idea. Aside from the potentially harmful effects on your health of the microwave itself, the damage it does to your food may far outweigh the convenience it provides. I got rid of mine years ago with the thought that, why go out of my way to make nutritious food, and then risk destroying all those good nutrients by "nuking" it in the microwave oven. It is known that microwaving food destroys some of the cancer-fighting phytonutrients. What may be even more disturbing is what is not known! Microwaving food changes its chemical structure, but we don't yet know what effect this has on our bodies and our health. Why take a chance with your health just for the sake of convenience?


-The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D is the only vitamin (some say it is really a hormone) that is not necessarily something you need to get from your diet. Sunlight on your skin activates a precursor that manufactures Vitamin D. However, if you live in northern climates or have very dark skin, it may be more difficult for you to get enough sunshine. In that case, you will need to get Vitamin D from your diet.

Who is most vulnerable to deficiency?

Those most affected by Vitamin D deficiency are children living in poverty and the elderly. In developed countries, rickets (Vitamin D deficiency in children) is uncommon. However, infants who are breast fed by vegetarian or vegan mothers who don’t get enough sunshine or Vitamin D fortified foods may become deficient. In addition, children who are vegetarians or vegans may develop rickets if they do not get enough Vitamin D.


Interesting Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Although many health experts recommend that you wear sunscreen to protect yourself from the harmful rays of the sun, sunscreens with SPF of 8 and above also block the ability of your body to produce Vitamin D from the very same sunlight. It seems we are always trying to balance the harmful effects with the beneficial effects. Some health experts suggest that you spend ten to twenty minutes in the sun each day without wearing sunscreen. Dark-skinned people will require as much as an hour each day of sunshine to achieve the same effect.


Vegetarian adults, and more particularly vegans, who do not include fortified dairy products and fortified cereals in their diet need to be aware of the potential for a Vitamin D deficiency. Although Vitamin D is mostly known for its role in keeping your bones healthy, recent studies have shown that it may have a protective influence against certain types of cancer and some autoimmune diseases. There is even some evidence that Vitamin D may help cure the common cold. Move over, Vitamin C!

How much Vitamin D is enough?

It is recommended that healthy adults get 200-600 IU of Vitamin D each day. If sunlight (at least 20 minutes to an hour each day depending on your skin tone) is not an option for you, this amount can be taken as a supplement or from fortified foods.

-Caveat for Vegetarian Nutrition: Of all the vitamins, Vitamin D is the most likely to become toxic if taken in large doses. Too much Vitamin D can cause calcification of the soft tissues of the body. The Upper Limit established by USDA for infants is 25 µg or 1,000 IU and for children and adults is 50 µg or 2,000 IU.

Missing some minerals?

Another category of nutrients that may be impacted by a vegetarian diet is minerals—specifically Iron, Calcium and Zinc.

-Two kinds of Iron

Iron, as it relates to your diet comes in two varieties. One is “heme” iron that only comes from animal flesh foods. The other type of iron is called “non-heme” iron and is found in both animal and plant foods. It appears that the heme iron that you eat is actually more readily absorbed into your system. In addition to the more easily absorbed heme iron, animal flesh foods also contain a peptide that helps in the absorption of the non-heme form of iron.

Those on a strict vegetarian diet are only getting the non-heme form of iron. In addition, they are not getting the peptide that helps their body to absorb it. Consequently, they may become iron deficient, since it is estimated that only about 10% of the iron from a vegetarian diet is absorbed by the body. However, by eating Vitamin C foods with meals, you can increase the absorption of non-heme iron. There is also evidence that your body will adapt to a vegetarian lifestyle by absorbing more of the non-heme iron.

Iron poor blood?

The reason iron is so important to how you feel is that it is a necessary component of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in your blood. If you don’t get enough iron, your body will not get enough oxygen and you will feel tired and weak.

A lesser-known function of iron is its role as part of an enzyme necessary for DNA synthesis. This means that iron is necessary for reproduction, growth and healthy immune function.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Your body works very hard to conserve whatever iron it has available. For this reason, when your red blood cells die after a few months, your body can salvage the iron and reuse it.


Iron balancing act

Your body has a complex system for absorbing, storing and excreting iron that helps to keep the balance of iron at its proper level. Just in case you need it, your body stores extra iron reserves in your spleen, bone marrow and liver.

Sources of iron

While red meat is the most obvious food source of iron, vegetarian sources of iron include the following:

Soy... Dried fruits... Legumes... Nuts and Seeds... Potatoes (with skin)... Peas... Tomato juice... Broccoli... Mushrooms... Cereals…Blackstrap molasses...

A number of foods such as breads and cereals are often fortified with iron. Check the labels of the foods you buy to discover their iron content.

If you are an ovo-vegetarian or a lacto-ovo vegetarian you will find that egg yolks are also a great source of iron.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition:  A potato eaten with the skin has 10 times the iron of a peeled potato.  (Just be sure to thoroughly scrub the potatoes before cooking.)


Vegetarian Nutrition - Iron supplementation

Although you should be able to obtain enough iron from your healthy diet, vegetarians may choose to take an iron supplement, particularly if you are also in one of the high-risk groups for iron deficiency—pregnant and pre-menopausal women and children. Some health experts believe that iron chelates or iron in the form of ferrous sulfate is better absorbed than other forms of iron.

If you choose to supplement with iron, be sure to drink a lot of water, to avoid constipation, a possible side effect of taking iron supplements. The upper intake level for adults for iron has been established at 45 mg per day. This means you should not take more than this amount, since iron can be toxic in large doses.

The recommended amount of iron for adults is between 8-18 mg each day. The higher amount is for women in their reproductive years.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: You can even get iron from that cast iron skillet you use for cooking. The food picks up the iron from the skillet and it is absorbed by your body.


Drug interaction

Iron supplementation can affect the efficacy of certain medications, and certain medications can have an effect on iron absorption. As always, if you are on medication, consult with your doctor and pharmacist regarding drug interactions with supplements.

--Caveat for Vegetarian Nutrition: Children are at risk from iron-containing supplements, and not just from ingesting the whole bottle. Even a few iron pills taken by a child can have devastating results. This is one of the most common causes of accidental poisoning of children.

-Calcium for your bones and more

When most people think of calcium foods, they think of milk, cheese and other dairy products. This is with good reason since dairy products are the richest source of calcium in the diet. For this reason vegans need to be particularly aware of the potential for calcium deficiency in their diet.

Most abundant mineral

Not surprisingly, calcium is the most abundant mineral found in your body, with most of it being located in your bones and teeth. The calcium in your bones allows you to have a rigid frame; without it, your bones would be soft, and you would have a posture like a wet noodle!

Calcium storage

In addition to providing a rigid structure for your muscles and tendons to attach to, the bones are also depositories for calcium, so that it is readily available to maintain your blood calcium levels. Although calcium is also stored in your teeth, it is less available than the calcium in your bones.


Interesting Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Despite the fact that bones appear to be solid and unchanging, they are actually constantly gaining and losing minerals, including calcium. If your body detects that your blood calcium level is low, it can remove calcium from your bones to bring up the level in your blood. Conversely, when your blood calcium levels are high enough, your body can replace the calcium in your bones.


Not just for bone health

The calcium that circulates in your body is important for (1) normal blood pressure and (2) clotting of the blood. It also is involved in (3) contraction of your muscles, (4) blood vessel dilation, (5) hormone secretion, (6) enzyme activity and (7) normal nerve function. There is also some evidence that calcium may have a role in (8) maintaining a normal body weight and in the (9) prevention of diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), colon cancer, and diabetes.

Sources of calcium

Although calcium is found most abundantly in dairy products, it is also available from vegetarian foods:

Broccoli… Cauliflower… Kale… Parsley… Bok Choy… Tofu… Almonds… Sesame seeds… Chia seeds… White beans… Pinto beans… Sweet potatoes… Whole wheat bread…

Calcium is present in some foods, such as spinach and rhubarb, but these foods also contain oxalic acid, which binds the calcium and makes it less available to your body. Nevertheless, you can still enjoy these dark, leafies for all of the other important nutrients they contain, and you will still get at least a small amount of absorbable calcium into the bargain


Interesting Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: There are cultures all over the world that include little or no dairy in their diets—and may even have “lactose-intolerance”-- yet, as a group, they do not suffer excessively from calcium deficiency.


Calcium fortified products

Some products, such as orange juice, some fruit drinks, and some cereals, are fortified with calcium. It is important to note that the type of calcium used in fortification will affect its availability for absorption in your body. This means that it is possible that not all of the calcium listed on the label of the fortified food, will actually be accessible to your body.

Should I supplement with calcium pills?

As always, it is better to get your calcium from the foods you eat, especially because calcium works in concert with other vitamins and minerals. However, if you are unable to get enough calcium in your diet, possibly due to a vegan lifestyle, you can supplement your diet with calcium pills.

Be aware that most calcium supplements should be taken with meals and that for the sake of good absorption; you should limit your supplementation to 500 mg at one time. Accordingly, you may want to break up your calcium supplementation, taking one in the morning and one in the evening.

How much calcium do I need?

The recommended amount of calcium for healthy adults is 1,000-1,300 mg each day.

Are vegans more likely to get osteoporosis?

Not surprisingly, when calcium is discussed, the subject of osteoporosis often comes up. Since bone loss and calcium deficiency are closely linked, it is important to get enough calcium in your diet, especially in the first three decades of your life, when your bone density is being established.

--Caveat for Vegetarian Nutrition: It is not easy to know if you are at risk for osteoporosis, since your blood calcium levels will not reflect bone loss. You can lose calcium from your bones for years, and it will not show up until the bone loss is in an advanced stage.

Risk factors associated with osteoporosis are well documented:

-Long-term calcium deficiency… 

-Women more than men…

-Older people rather than younger… 

-Frail people rather than sturdy… 

-Cigarette smokers… 

-Excessive alcohol consumers…

-Family history of osteoporosis…

-Sedentary lifestyle…

-Estrogen deficiency in women and Testosterone deficiency in men… 

-Long-term Vitamin D deficiency…

Although your chance of developing osteoporosis is affected by some factors you cannot control, such as heredity, gender and age, your diet and lifestyle also have an effect on your bone health. The two periods of your life when calcium consumption most affects your bone health are the first part, when you are growing and developing and the last part, when both your ability to absorb calcium and your stores of calcium may be compromised. For this reason, children, teenagers and the elderly who eat a vegan diet should pay particular attention to including a variety of calcium-rich plant foods in their meals.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: The yeast in bread actually aids zinc absorption, so that more zinc is available from the grains in yeast breads than from unleavened breads made with the same grains.


*Zinc is connected with protein consumption

Since foods high in protein, such as meat, eggs and dairy products, are the best sources of zinc, vegetarians may be at risk for deficiency of this important mineral.


Interesting Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: There are almost 100 enzymes of every type in your body that have zinc as part of their structure.


Zinc is part of so many functions in the body that it is difficult to name them all, and those are just the ones we know about. Although it is a trace element, meaning you don’t need a large amount, zinc is involved in major processes throughout your body.

Where can I get zinc?

There are some plant foods that are significant sources of zinc. These include the following:

Sunflower seeds… Pinto beans… Cashews… Almonds… Peanut butter… Garbanzo beans… Whole grains…

Some foods, such as cereals, are fortified with zinc, but this form is less available for absorption due to the presence of binders that keep some of the zinc from being absorbed.

It is recommended that healthy adults get 8-11 mg of zinc each day, with men needing the higher amount.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Your body has the amazing ability to reuse the zinc that it gets from the foods you eat. This happens when some of the zinc you eat goes to the pancreas where it becomes part of digestive enzymes that are released into your stomach during digestion. The zinc is then reabsorbed and makes a full circle back to the pancreas, where it can start the cycle all over again.


What if I don’t get enough zinc?

As with most nutrient minerals, zinc deficiency is not common in developed countries and is generally associated with poverty and inadequate nutrition or with a genetic disorder that affects zinc absorption. Children—particularly vegans--are particularly vulnerable to deficiency, since their rapid growth and development requires a steady supply of zinc. Older adults andstrict vegetarian adults are also susceptible to zinc deficiency. Severe zinc deprivation can lead to a disorder known as dwarfism, where the individual fails to reach normal height and physical maturation.


Interesting Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: There is some evidence that taking zinc will prevent or lessen the severity of the common cold. The jury is still out on whether this is effective, but it probably doesn't hurt as long as the dosage is not excessive.


Too much zinc can be harmful to your health.

If you decide to supplement your vegetarian diet with zinc, please be aware that zinc can be toxic in high doses. Prolonged zinc toxicity can lead to copper and iron deficiency and to heart problems.

Zinc supplements can also interact with medication and certain medications can affect zinc absorption. Consult with your doctor and pharmacist if you take medications to find out the possible interactions and nutritional concerns.

The upper intake level for adults for zinc that has been established is 40 mg per day.

chia seed package

Everyone is talking about Omega-3’s

There has been a lot of press about the importance of the essential fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6. It has been suggested that many people, while getting enough Omega-6, are deficient in Omega-3. For this reason, many people have started eating more fish or taking fish-oil supplements, a rich source of omega-3 fats.

Fortunately, there are also some good plant sources of Omega-3 oils such as walnuts, walnut oil, flax seed and flax seed oil, chia seed and soybeans. If you are a vegetarian, and therefore you don’t eat fish or even fish-oil capsules, you can easily get your Omega-3’s by adding a few tablespoons of freshly ground flax seed to your breakfast cereal or smoothie.


Fun Fact about Vegetarian Nutrition: Remember the ads you’ve seen for those “pets” that consist of animal-shaped planters that you spread with special seeds and the planter becomes a sort of green growing creature? The seeds that are used are called “chia” seeds, which are actually another excellent source of Omgea-3 fats that have a milder taste than flax seed. They come in the black and white varieties and can be purchased online or at many grocery stores.


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