Vegetarian or Vegan Diet: Getting the Nutrients You Need

Vegetarian or Vegan Diet: Getting the Nutrients You Need

When following a vegetarian or vegan diet, nutrient deficiencies may occur. Your diet may lack protein, certain essential fats, and some vitamins and minerals. All of these nutrients impact how your body functions and your overall health.

The risk for nutrient deficiencies depends on the specific type of vegetarian/vegan diet you follow. The more restricted your diet - i.e. the fewer types of foods, the more likely you are to become deficient. 

Protein

Protein is necessary for the proper growth, development, repair, and function of the body. 

Dietitians recommend that you have a minimum of 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight every day (and up to 2g per kilogram per day if you are more active). For example, a person weighing 180 pounds, or 82 kg, should have a minimum of 82g of protein per day.

Vegetarian and Vegan Proteins:

  • Eggs: 1 whole egg has 7 g protein

  • Greek yogurt: About 5 oz (140 g) has 15 g protein

  • Hemp seeds*: 1 oz (28 g) has 9 g protein

  • Tofu (extra firm)*: 5 oz (140 g) has 20 g protein

  • Edamame beans*: 5 oz (140 g) has 17 g protein

  • Tempeh*: 3.5 oz (98 g) has 20 g protein

  • Cottage cheese: 6 oz (168 g) has 20 g protein

  • Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese: 1 oz (28 g) has 9 g protein

  • Hard and semi-hard cheeses (Swiss, cheddar, gouda, provolone, etc.): 1 oz (28 g) has 7 g protein

  • Soft cheeses (feta, camembert, brie, blue cheese, queso blanco, etc.): 1 oz (28 g) has 4 g protein

  • Peanut or almond butter*: 2 Tbsp. (20 mL) has 4 g protein

*Vegan sources of protein

Key Nutrients and Micronutrients

Iron 

Iron is necessary to store and transport oxygen, for energy use by your cells, and to protect your cells - it supports antioxidants. Vegetarian sources of iron require vitamin C for absorption. Make sure you include foods with vitamin C as in the table below. 

Note: Having coffee and tea with iron-containing foods decreases its absorption. 

Vitamin B12 

Vitamin B12 supports cell metabolism. It is also involved in nervous, digestive, and immune functioning, as well as energy and mood. 

Check with your doctor if you are on a vegan diet- you may need a B12 supplement.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is necessary for strong bones and teeth. It is also important for immunity and regulating blood pressure and mood.

With few exceptions (see table below), vitamin D is present in foods in only tiny amounts. Talk with your doctor about vitamin D supplements and lab testing.

Note: You absorb vitamin D when you’re regularly exposed to sunlight (which must be done safely) and from foods fortified with vitamin D.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and are important for brain and heart health.  

Zinc 

Zinc has a role in many body functions including immunity, liver function, cell growth metabolism of protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol. 

Calcium

Calcium, like vitamin D, is necessary for strong bones and teeth.it’s It also plays a role in muscle function and blood clotting.

Magnesium 

Magnesium is used by the body in many ways including muscle, nerve, and immune functions and blood pressure regulation.

What about Soy?

Soy protein comes in many forms (e.g. ​​tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, tempeh, miso, etc.) and is often a mainstay of vegetarian and vegan diets. But, is it safe? Here are the facts.

Soybeans, the source of soy,  contain isoflavones - naturally occurring estrogen-like compounds. Isoflavones may interfere with thyroid hormone absorption in those with mild thyroid problems. This may occur when they don’t have enough iodine, which is necessary for normal thyroid gland function. 

The solution? Make sure you have enough iodine if you have soy regularly (especially if you have hypothyroidism - an under-functioning thyroid gland).  Sources include iodized salt (check the label), dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese), seafood (e.g. cod, tuna, shrimp), and seaweed.

Soy and glyphosate

Soy products worldwide may contain residues of glyphosate. It is a herbicide used on soy and other crops that may be harmful. 

Organic and non-GMO soy products do not contain glyphosate. It is best to choose the less processed or fermented forms of soy,  such as edamame, tofu, soy milk, and tempeh, and to avoid the highly processed forms such as soy powders and supplements.

Soy overall

The benefits of soy seem to greatly outweigh the risks. It is safe to consume soy products several times a week.  

The risk to thyroid function appears very small. If you have soy products regularly, you should talk with your doctor about thyroid lab tests. You should also include iodine-containing foods in your diet.

Be sure to talk about your nutrient needs with your Goodpath coach. They can help you figure out what might be missing from your diet and make recommendations for a healthy, complete diet.

For More Information

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2021). Healthful Vegetarian Meal Ideas. Retrieved 9-13-2021 from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets.