Deciding to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet is not as easy as many people think. With more people turning to vegetarianism for health and weight loss, considering how this lifestyle will affect your health is important. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle without animal products requires more than just replacing your protein source. Omnivores get many of their nutrients from animals sources, and vegetarians and vegans often need to supplement their diets to be in optimum health. This is especially important for athletes and those of us that live active lifestyles.
Below are five of the most important nutrients to consider in a plant-based diet:
We all grew up being told to drink milk for strong bones. However, the truth is that we are the only species that drinks milk beyond infancy, and many of us have trouble digesting it. Calcium is in plenty of other foods besides dairy milk. I get most of my calcium from fortified non-dairy milk which is often loaded with it, but calcium can also be found in dark green vegetables like kale and broccoli, two veggies everyone should eat for their numerous health benefits. Most multivitamins also contain calcium.
We famously get this depression-fighting vitamin from being in the sun, but the reality is that many of us work indoors, live in cloudy climates, or burn the second the sun touches our skin. Vitamin D is also found in fatty fish and can be hard to come by for vegetarians and vegans. Look for fortified milk and some fortified orange juices. However, to get enough Vitamin D many of us will need to take a supplement, especially during the winter.
Vitamin B-12 is a vital nutrient and not just for energy. According to Mayo Clinic, B-12 deficiency can cause irregular heartbeats, muscle weakness, and even nervous system disorders. They also claim that vegans often don’t exhibit symptoms of B-12 deficiency until it is serious due to diets high in folates. While some foods like cereals are fortified with B-12, a vitamin supplement is often the best bet in this case.
Fish oil and fatty fish are the most common sources of Omega 3, which is important for overall health as it lowers inflammation and is especially important for heart function. Flaxseed and hempseed can be ground and mixed into smoothies or baked goods, but won’t provide as much of this nutrient as you need. To get enough of this fatty acid, most vegans and vegetarians will need a supplement as very few plant-based foods contain it. Make sure to look for a supplement derived from algae rather than fish oil.
No vegetarian supplement list is complete without talking about protein. It is the first thing everyone mentions with plant-based diets. However, unless you are actively building muscle, you don’t need nearly as much protein as you probably think. The World Health Organization released a report in 2007 stating that “a safe protein intake of .75g/kg per day…would provide for the needs of nearly all individuals.” .75g/kg translates to only .34g/lb of body weight. (I blame the United States’ shunning of the metric system for the confusion.) This means a 130lb individual only needs about 44g of protein per day. Tempeh is a great choice with more protein than tofu as are lentils and black beans. Protein is not usually something you will need to be that worried about in your diet. When you are looking to build muscle, plant-based protein powders are an easy way to get some extra protein fast.
Take these nutrients into consideration before you change your diet to set yourself up for success and to ensure that your health doesn’t suffer from your new lifestyle, but benefits.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and you should consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet.