Following a vegetarian or vegan diet isn’t easy for everyone. Although it can provide many health benefits, it can also be detrimental for health if it isn’t nutritionally adequate. On the same note, it’s also challenging to maintain a well-rounded vegetarian diet that provides all the nutrients you need.
There is evidence, however, that vegan and vegetarian diet styles have been associated with weight management, better blood sugar control, lower risk of certain types of cancer and a decreased risk of heart disease.
These 9 tips can serve as strategic recommendations to ensure adequate nutrition when following a vegan or vegetarian diet…
Unfortunately, just because a food product is labeled “vegetarian” or “vegan” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier than the regular alternative.
For example, almond milk is a popular, plant-based milk that’s often a staple in vegan diets. However, while almond milk is low in calories and enriched with several important vitamins and minerals, it is not necessarily healthier than cow’s milk.
For example, 1 cup (240 ml) of low-fat cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, while the same amount of unsweetened almond milk contains only 1 gram.
Sweetened almond milk can also be high in added sugar, with 16 grams of sugar in just 1 cup.
Other vegetarian products, such as soy-based veggie burgers, nuggets and meat alternatives, are often highly processed, with a long list of artificial ingredients. So they’re often no healthier than other non-vegetarian processed foods. Despite being vegetarian, these products are also often high in calories, yet lacking the protein, fiber and nutrients necessary for a balanced meal.
While these products may ease your transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s best to consume them in moderation with a diet rich in nutritious, whole foods.
Whether you’re cooking at home or dining out, eating vegetarian or vegan requires a little bit of extra planning.
Meal plans can be very handy and especially useful if you’re currently moving to vegetarian or vegan as they can support this transition and make it easier to maintain an adequate and nutritious diet. This planning becomes even more important when you’re eating out or traveling, due to the fact that some restaurants or food stores offer limited choices for vegan/vegetarians. Hence looking at the menu in advance or packing up some goodies with you can help you make informed decisions and ease the selection of nutritious choices available. My best recommendation is to make a habit to find a few vegetarian/vegan recipes each week and cook them on your own.
As you may have heard before, protein is an essential part of the diet. Your body uses protein to create enzymes, help build tissue and muscle as well as produce certain hormones. Protein also contributes promoting feelings of fullness, increase muscle mass and reduce cravings.
Current recommendations suggest adults should eat no less than 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you’re following a vegetarian diet, you probably should aim to make more conscious efforts to eat high-protein food sources that will help you meet your protein needs.
There are plenty of plant foods that contain an amount of protein comparable to the amount you’d find in meat. Beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, tofu and tempeh can all up your daily protein intake.
Try to incorporate at least one or two of these foods into each meal to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
4. Get your Vitamin B12!
Vitamin B12 plays several important roles in the body, especially in brain function and the nervous system. It’s key in the creation of red blood cells and DNA, among other processes.
Unfortunately, the main sources of vitamin B12 are obtained from animal sources, such as poultry, meat, shellfish, eggs and milk products. Thus the increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency can be higher in vegans/vegetarians who can experience symptoms such as fatigue, memory problems and numbness. It can also lead to megaloblastic anemia, a condition caused by having a lower-than-normal amount of red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria, neither fungi, plants, nor animals (including humans) capable of producing vitamin B12. Meaning that we need to get it directly or indirectly from bacteria. So why do vegans/vegetarians naturally get less than those who follow normal diets? Because bacteria lives inside of animals (and therefore animal products). Vegetables and plants have some bacteria as well; however, when they’re washed or cooked, we get rid of most of it. Fortunately, there are fortified foods, such as plant-based milks and cereals that you can incorporate into your diet. Most resources I’ve encountered recommend taking a supplement for extra measure.
Some B12 sources are:
- Nutritional yeast – add to tofu scramble, use in vegan cheese, use for a “cheesy” flavor on popcorn, sprinkle in soups, casseroles and salads
- Fortified foods – plant-based milks (for cereal, in baked goods, soups, etc), vegan yogurts (made with soy, coconut, almond, etc), cereals
- B12 supplements
- Certain types of edible algae
Vegetarians/vegans tend to have a higher fiber intake, since fiber-rich legumes, vegetables and whole grains are staples in this diet styles. Vegans and vegetarians can eat around 41and 34 grams of fibre a day, respectively, as compared to those who eat meat & plant-based foods (~27g fibre/ day). Hence, drinking enough water is especially important for to maintain a healthy gut as well as helping fiber move through the digestive system and prevent issues such as gas, bloating and constipation.
Current guidelines recommend women consume at least 25-30 grams of fiber per day, and men consume at least 35-38 grams/day.
To make sure you’re drinking enough water, drink not just when you feel thirsty, but also by creating awareness and spreading your water intake throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Iron is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in many bodily functions. Vegetarians may be at greater risk of not getting sufficient and absorbable Iron from the diet if it isn’t filled with iron-rich plant foods to meet their daily needs.
A diet lacking in iron can result in low energy levels, shortness of breath, headaches, irritability, dizziness or anemia. Iron can be found in two forms in foods: heme and non-heme. The heme iron found in meat and animal products is generally more easily absorbed by the human body than the non-heme iron found in plants. For this reason, the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians and vegans than those who eat meat (RDI ~18 mg per day).
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, make sure to consume plenty of good sources of iron, including: Tofu, Tempeh, Natto, Soybeans, lentils, beans, fortified cereals, nuts & seeds (Pumpkin, Sesame, Hemp and Flaxseeds), leafy greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard and beet greens), tomato paste, potato, mushrooms; fruits ( prune juice & olives) and whole grains (amaranth, oats, quinoa).
There are various strategies that can be implemented to increase the body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron. The best strategies seem to be pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C (found in most fruit and vegetables) which may enhance the absorption of non-heme iron up 300%; and avoiding coffee and tea with meals as it may reduce iron absorption by 50-90%.
Use your vegetarian diet as an opportunity to reduce your consumption of processed foods and increase your intake of nutrient-dense, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Food products that claim to be vegetarian or vegan don’ necessarily mean they’re good for you. Nowadays it is easy to find plenty of these processed foods available at the supermarkets; nonetheless, they often contribute little to your diet.
Increasing your intake of whole foods instead, will help you get the adequate vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to help prevent nutritional deficiencies.
To start including more whole foods in your diet, swap out refined grains for whole grains, and limit the amount of processed and convenience foods you eat. Additionally, try adding more vegetables and fruits to your meals and snacks throughout the day.
8. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential!
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of the diet and we cannot produce it so we only can get it from our diet.
The most well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oil and fatty fish like salmon, trout and tuna. However, this can make it challenging for vegans, vegetarians or even those who simply dislike fish to meet their omega-3 fatty acid needs.
Of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, plant foods typically only contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is not as active in the body and must be converted to two other forms of omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — to give the same health benefits Unfortunately, your body is only able to convert about 5% of ALA to EPA and less than 0.5% to DHA.
To meet your omega-3 needs while following a vegetarian/vegan diet, eat a good amount of ALA-rich foods or consider taking a plant-based omega-3 supplement like algal oil.
Foods highest in ALA omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seed, flaxseeds, Brussels sprouts and perilla oil. Including a few servings of these foods in your diet each day can easily help you meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs.
Calcium is an important mineral your body needs to keep your bones and teeth strong, help your muscles work efficiently and support the function of your nervous system. A calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak, porous bones and increases the risk of bone fractures.
The main foods rich in calcium are dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt. However, many non-dairy sources are also high in this mineral. These include seafood, leafy greens, legumes, beans, lentils, dried fruit, tofu, kale, collard greens, broccoli, bok choy, almonds, figs and oranges. Fortified foods including whey protein powder can also be a good source of calcium.
You can get all the calcium you need by incorporating a few servings of these foods into your meals and snacks throughout the day.
So the bottom line is that having a balanced vegan/vegetarian diet can be very healthy and nutritious. So If you’re just getting started eating this way, make sure you implement these strategies to avoid nutrient deficiencies or potential health problems in a medium-long term, especially if your diet isn’t well-planned.
A little bit about the author…
Astrid Naranjo is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian in Australia, and has a diverse background in the field of nutrition & dietetics and personal training. With more than 6 years of experience in body re-composition, weight management, fitness, clinical and sports nutrition, she also has 12 years of personal training, functional, TRX and group fitness classes experience. Astrid has been in the exercise field from a young age and has helped thousands of people to improve and change their lifestyles. Her extensive expertise has been gained throughout diverse roles as dietitian-PT, presenter, social and media blogger as well as through continuing professional development and practices at international level. Currently, Astrid works in a Rehab & mental health private Hospital as clinical dietitian and runs her own local Mobile private practice as well as online coaching & programs. Instagram @antidiet_dietitian, Twitter @astridnar