From animal rights to health concerns, there are many reasons why people choose to become vegetarians. In fact, vegetarianism is practiced by a number of cultures throughout the world, including nearly a third of the Indian population (primarily via the Hindu, Jain and Brahmin communities). There are different types of vegetarians, denoted by the prefixes attached to the title: Ovo- = eggs, Lacto- = dairy. For example, the only animal products an ovo-lacto-vegetarian eats are eggs and dairy products.
While becoming a vegetarian can lend itself to positive dietary changes, such as increased vegetable, fruit and whole-grain consumption, it does not necessarily make someone a “healthy” eater – sugar, fried foods, alcohol and refined starches can all be vegetarian! Additionally, vegetarians may be at increased risk of deficiency of certain nutrients, like protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. Check with your physician before taking supplements of any of the nutrients suggested below.
Why It’s Important: Protein not only provides the building blocks of muscle and lean body mass, but is also involved in the production of hair, nails, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters.
How Much an Adult Needs: The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein for an average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, it can be 20 percent higher for people whose primary sources of protein are from plants – which is equal to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. For an average 150-pound person, that is 68 grams of protein per day.
Vegetarian Foods Rich in Protein (values are approximate):
• 1/2 cup cottage cheese = 15 grams
• 6 ounces yogurt = 8 to 12 grams
• 2 eggs = 12 grams
• 1/2 cup tofu = 20 grams
• 1 scoop plant-based protein powder = 20 to 25 grams
• 1 cup cooked quinoa = 8 grams
• 1/2 cup beans = 8 to 10 grams
• 1 ounce or 1/4 cup almonds = 6 grams
• 1 ounce or 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds = 9 grams
Why It’s Important: Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, proper functioning of the brain and nervous system, and metabolism. Deficiency can result in anemia, muscle weakness, numbness and loss of balance.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for adults is 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day. While the body can store vitamin B12 in the liver for years, deficiency can occur in vegetarians and vegans, as most sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods.
Vegetarian Foods Rich in Vitamin B12 (values are approximate):
• 8 ounces yogurt = 0.9 to 1.4 micrograms
• 8 ounces milk = 1.15 micrograms
• 1 ounce cheese = 0.95 micrograms
• 1 egg = 0.4 to 0.5 micrograms
• 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast = 2 micrograms
• Fortified almond, soy or coconut milk = 1 to 3 micrograms
• Fortified cereals and “meat” alternatives = varies
Why It’s Important: Iron is an essential component of the cells that accept and transfer oxygen through the body – hemoglobin in our red blood cells and myoglobin in our muscle cells. Iron is also involved in breathing, metabolism, collagen synthesis and brain function. Deficiency can result in feelings of fatigue and weakness, decreased mental performance, decreased immune function, swollen tongue and difficulty maintaining body temperature.
How Much an Adult Needs: Women need more iron (18 milligrams per day) than men (8 milligrams per day) during their menstrual years. Women have increased needs with pregnancy (27 milligrams per day), and lower needs while lactating (9 milligrams per day) and after menopause (8 milligrams per day). While plant-based sources of iron are less absorbed by the body, you can increase how much your body takes in by consuming them with a source of vitamin C. Cooking in a cast-iron skillet can actually help as well!
Vegetarian Foods Rich in Iron (values are approximate):
• 1 cup cooked spinach, Swiss chard and other dark leafy greens = about 6 milligrams
• 1 cup of most beans = 4 milligrams
• 1 cup lentils = 6 milligrams
• 1/2 cup tofu = 3 milligrams
• 1 cup quinoa (cooked) = 2.7 milligrams
• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds = 2.6 milligrams
• 1 ounce cashews = 2 milligrams
• 1 medium potato with skin = 2 milligrams
• 1/2 cup stewed tomatoes = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked broccoli = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup green peas = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked Brussels sprouts = 2 milligrams
• 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses = 2 milligrams
Why It’s Important: Zinc is involved in a wide range of bodily functions, primarily supporting the immune system, wound healing, cell division, cell growth and carbohydrate metabolism. Deficiency can result in delayed healing, increased infection, loss of taste or smell, decreased appetite, hair or skin problems and loss of libido in men.
How Much an Adult Needs: Adequate daily intake of zinc is important, as the body cannot store it. While adult women generally need at least 8 milligrams per day (more during pregnancy) and adult men need 11 milligrams per day, vegetarians may need to consume as much as 50 percent more than those amounts, since zinc from vegetarian sources is not absorbed as well.
Foods Rich in Zinc (values are approximate):
• 1 ounce pumpkin seeds = 2.92 milligrams
• 1 cup quinoa (cooked) = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup yogurt = 1.7 milligrams
• 1 ounce cashews = 1.6 milligrams
• 1/4 cup dry oatmeal = 1.5 milligrams
• 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds = 1.4 milligrams
• 1/2 cup chickpeas = 1.3 milligrams
• 1 cup lentils = 1.3 milligrams
• 1 ounce most cheeses = 1 to 1.2 milligrams
• 1 cup milk = 1 milligrams
• 1 ounce almonds = 0.9 milligrams
• 1 cup asparagus = 1 milligrams
Why it’s Important: While traditionally associated with strong bones and teeth (99 percent of calcium is stored there), calcium also plays major roles in blood clotting, maintaining your heartbeat, creating muscle contractions, conducting nerve signals and releasing hormones. Some examples of acute calcium deficiency are numbness/tingling in the fingers, muscle cramping, fatigue, reduced appetite, convulsions and arrhythmias. Long-term deficiency can negatively affect bone health, including osteopenia, osteoporosis and increased fracture risk.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for calcium for most adults ranges from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day depending on age. Adolescents need a bit more, about 1,300 milligrams per day. Vegetarians who consume dairy products can usually consume enough dietary calcium to meet their needs as long as they are attentive to having at least two to three sources of dairy per day.
Foods Rich in Calcium (values are approximate):
• 1 cup milk = 300 milligrams
• 6 ounces yogurt = 350 milligrams
• 1 cup fortified non-dairy milk = 300 milligrams
• 1 cup fortified orange juice = 300 milligrams
• 1 ounce most cheeses = 250 milligrams
• 1/2 cup tofu = 250 milligrams
• 1/2 cup cottage cheese = 240 milligrams
• 10 figs = 270 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked broccoli = 180 milligrams
• 1/4 cup almonds = 95 milligrams
• 1 cup most beans = 80 milligrams
• 1 cup sweet potato or butternut squash = 70 to 85 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked dark leafy greens (kale, bok choy, etc.) = 75 to 100 milligrams
Why It’s Important: Vitamin D is involved in many systems throughout the body including bone health, cell growth, immune function, neuromuscular function, inflammation management and cell regulation. Deficiency can result in loss of bone health, such as rickets in children and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in adults. Bone pain and muscle weakness may occur as well.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for vitamin D has risen in recent years, up to 600 IU (15 micrograms) for most adults, increasing to 800 IU (20 micrograms) for adults over 70 years of age. There are very few foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D, and even fewer for vegetarians and vegans. Adequate sunlight during the summer months is the best way to ensure ample vitamin D stores, but this can be challenging for many.
Foods Rich in Vitamin D (values are approximate):
• 1 cup fortified orange juice = about 140 IU
• 1 cup milk = 110 to 125 IU
• Vitamin D-enriched mushrooms = varies based on what light the mushroom is exposed to
• 6 ounces yogurt = 80 IU, some are fortified with more
• 1 large egg = 40 IU
• Fortified cereal = varies
Vegetarian Recipes That Feature Vitamin D-Rich Foods:
Through his book and blog, Death of the Diet , Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS, strongpowers people to live the life they want by integrating healthy eating and physical activity habits into their daily routines. You can follow him on Twitter @JMachowskyRDFit .