Meeting Your Nutritional Needs While Following a Vegetarian (and Vegan) Diet
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
An old friend reached out to me a few months back stating that she wanted to clean up her diet and get healthy. She was potentially interested in following a vegetarian or vegan diet for not only herself, but her one-year-old son as well. My first thought was, I’m not sure if a vegan diet for a toddler is safe. Vegetarian and vegan diets are not something I deal with on a regular basis, so I knew I had to get my facts straight before offering any guidance. Luckily, I remembered the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the organization Registered Dietitian Nutritionists belong to) had a position paper on vegetarian diets that I could turn to. I grabbed my pen and highlighter and got to work.
It turns out that my initial thought process was totally wrong. Vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for everyone, as long as you do it right. I’m breaking down some of the nutrients of biggest concern for vegetarians and explain how to make sure you’re meeting all of your needs.
Vegetarian, including vegan, diets are often lower in protein compared to more traditional diets. Even with this, they do typically meet or exceed protein recommendations as long as enough total calories are consumed. It was previously thought that plant proteins needed to be combined at meals to make them “complete”, however we now know this to be false. Eat a variety of plant-based proteins like lentils, beans and soy products to ensure protein needs are being met. Try to include some sort of protein source at all meals and snacks.
Vegetarian diets are typically lower in fat compared to traditional diets. Overall, this can be a health benefit, but some fat in the diet is necessary. Be sure to include nuts, seeds and oils on a regular basis. Infants and young children need more fat in their diet compared to adults for brain development, so dietary fat is especially important for this age group.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health and are important during pregnancy and breastfeeding for the baby’s brain development. These fatty acids can be found in cold water fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines. If you do not consume fish, certain plant-foods including flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids as well. The equivalent of 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil or 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day would be needed to get the recommended amount of omega-3s per day. DHA (a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid) supplements derived from algae are also available, which may be of particular benefit to pregnant and breastfeeding women.
There are two different types of dietary iron, being heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in meat and is easily absorbed by the body. Plant sources of iron are strictly non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well. Therefore, it may be of benefit to consume more than the general recommendations for iron. Vegetarian sources of iron include beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, tofu and iron-fortified cereals. When having an iron-rich meal, avoid having coffee or tea with it, and include a source of vitamin C. These tips will help to improve absorption.
Zinc is a nutrient we need for our immune system, wound healing, and for children to grow properly. Phytic acid, which is found in plant foods, can bind to zinc causing issues with absorption. Therefore, vegetarians may benefit from consuming more than the recommended amount. Vegetarian sources of zinc include soy products, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts.
Calcium is an important nutrient for bone health. Vegetarians that consume dairy typically consume enough calcium, but vegans may not. Calcium-set tofu, or fortified milk substitutes (soy or almond milk for example) can be excellent sources of calcium. Other foods like kale, turnip greens, white beans, almonds, tahini and figs also contain calcium.
Unfortunately, no plant food naturally contains vitamin B12, so vegans must consume foods fortified with B12, or take a supplement. Some foods that are often fortified with B12 include milk alternatives, cereals and nutritional yeast. Make sure to check the food label as some brands choose not to fortify their foods.
Plant-based diets are often lower in calories compared to more traditional diets. Generally, this is a health benefit as it can prevent becoming overweight or obese. However, an adequate amount of calories is important for everyone, especially pregnant women and children. If you or your child needs to gain weight, talk to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to come up with a plan.
*If you're interested, here is a copy of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets*