8 Key Nutrients Vegetarians Need

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Going meatless even a few days a week may be a healthy option for you and for the planet, but if you are limiting your meat intake, be sure to get enough of these eight key nutrients to help maintain a balanced diet.


Calcium helps build bones and teeth, and also helps nerve cells transmit messages and muscles contract. Dairy supplies most of Americans’ calcium. Other good sources: vegetables like bok choy, broccoli and kale; tofu set with calcium; fortified soy milk.


Iodine is needed to turn food into energy and to maintain normal thyroid function. Seafood (including seaweed) is a good source; so is iodized salt.


The body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Red meat and dark meat in chicken are among the best sources of easily absorbed iron. Iron from plant sources–dried fruits, legumes, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains–is less readily absorbed. Thus, recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times that of nonvegetarians. Consuming vitamin C with iron-rich foods boosts its absorption.

Omega-3 fatty acids

DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids, are important for eye and brain development, as well as heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are found mainly in fatty fish like salmon, though they can be made by the body in small amounts from ALA, another type of omega-3 that’s found in plants like flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soy. A variety of foods, including soy milks and breakfast bars, are now fortified with DHA. Supplements of DHA/EPA made from algae are available.


Every cell in our body contains protein, and we need it to repair cells, build tissue, grow hair, nails and bone. Protein is found in almost every food we eat. Eating a variety of plant foods every day, including protein-rich soybeans, beans, whole grains, seeds, and nuts (as well as vegetables, to a lesser degree) provides all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that we need.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is required for proper neurological function. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods, but is added to fortified foods, such as soy milks and breakfast cereals. A supplement is recommended for vegetarians (as well as everyone over 50 since we’re less able to absorb B12 as we age).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, is important for bone health; it also plays a role in the nervous, muscular, and immune systems. The body makes vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight, but northern climates don’t get enough sun year-round for adequate formation. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, but milk and some nondairy milks are fortified with it.


Zinc is important for a healthy immune system. Beef, pork, and lamb are good sources, as are soy products, peanuts, and legumes. The bioavailability of zinc from plant sources is lower than from animal sources.

Recipes © 2004-2013 Eating Well, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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