Potential Nutrient Deficiencies Linked With a Vegetarian Diet
A well-rounded vegetarian diet can be healthy and nutritionally sound with some careful planning. In fact, a cohort study compared its findings with that of previous research on heart disease and diet. The researchers concluded that their own findings were in line with previous research, indicating that diets that included less meat and skewed vegetarian were associated with a lower overall risk of heart disease. Here are tips to make sure you’re getting enough essential nutrients:
- Protein You can get all the protein you need from a vegetarian diet. Pulses (beans and peas), legumes, and soy are all rich sources of protein. Good sources of plant protein include whole grains, seeds, nuts, and some vegetables, including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, though vegetables are not a significant source of protein. Plant-based meat substitutes have also come a long way in recent years, both in taste and nutrition — just be sure to read the nutrition label to avoid excess sodium and saturated fat.
- Iron A vegetarian diet may put you at higher risk for iron deficiency. Make sure to get enough good plant-based sources of iron in your diet, like dried beans, spinach, dried fruit, and yeast. Adding vitamin C to your iron-rich meal, like in the form of lemon or orange juice, will increase your iron absorption, according to research published in 2022.
- Vitamin B12 Vegetarians often don’t get enough B12, which can leave them feeling fatigued. You can make sure to get enough vitamin B12 by incorporating nutritional yeast into your diet. (Just check the label to make sure your nutritional yeast contains B12.) One serving of fortified nutritional yeast contains more than 100 percent of the daily recommended value of B12, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). You can also include vegetarian-friendly products such as B12-fortified soy milk or cereal, or take a B12 supplement, though you should try to get most of your nutrients from food, according to the ODS.
- Zinc This mineral is important for growth and development, and the top six best sources of zinc are all meat or seafood, according to the ODS. The good news is, grains, nuts, and legumes are good sources of zinc.
- Vitamin D If you don’t include dairy in your vegetarian diet and you don’t spend much time outdoors in the sun, you might not get the vitamin D you need. Dairy products and fatty fish like tuna and salmon are key sources of vitamin D in the omnivore diet. Mushrooms are a good vegetarian source of vitamin D, but you may want to supplement your diet with vitamin D and calcium. The combination of vitamin D and vitamin K2 supplementation can also help increase bone mineral density, according to research.
How to Choose Healthy Fats
Even though a vegetarian diet eliminates animal foods as a source of saturated fat, if you have high cholesterol, you’ll still need to watch out for sources of fat and cooking methods that can affect your cholesterol levels. As a rule of thumb, avoid fried foods and cut back on processed foods when possible.
- Avoid trans fats. Many vegetable oils have hydrogen added to them. Called hydrogenated oils, these are high in trans fats, which can raise your cholesterol levels. Read the label of any butter substitute or cooking oil you’re choosing in order to avoid trans fats when you cook. Trans fat also hides in processed foods, since it has a stable shelf life. Be particularly careful of prepackaged baked goods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, and nondairy coffee creamer.
- Limit saturated fats. Saturated fat raises cholesterol levels and is primarily found in meat and full-fat dairy products, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Despite this effect, it has not been more universally proven that all saturated fat intake leads to cardiovascular disease, like heart attack and stroke, and it’s even more confusing when comparing plant- versus animal-based saturated fats. Regarding nonanimal saturated fat, as previously mentioned, vegetarian meat substitutes often contain significant amounts of saturated fat. Also note that coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils do contain saturated fats. Consider substitutes or balancing your intake of saturated fats with the heart-healthy oils below.
- Add heart-healthy oils. Unsaturated fats are found in heart-healthy oils, like safflower, corn, olive, canola, sunflower, soybean, and peanut, and can help lower your cholesterol levels. Eating olive oil in particular has been specifically associated with good heart health over time. One study evaluated nearly 64,000 women and 35,000 men over a span of 24 years. Those whose diets included more than the average amount of olive oil were 15 percent less likely to have cardiovascular disease (CVD) of any kind and more than 20 percent less likely to have coronary heart disease.
- Try low-fat cooking. You can sauté foods in water or vegetable broth instead of oil, or use just a very small amount of olive oil to sauté instead of frying. You can also consider investing in an appliance such as an air fryer, which uses very little oil to produce the same effect as deep-frying. Broiling, steaming, poaching, and boiling are better than frying when you’re watching the amount of fat and calories in your diet. When baking, you can cut back on the amount of oil or margarine and replace it with water, juice, or applesauce.
Make Vegetarian Recipes Household Staples
Being vegetarian doesn’t mean you have to cook separate meals for yourself when preparing dinner for a crowd. There are tons of options for heart-healthy vegetarian dishes that pack in nutrients and taste great. Here are some resources that can help you get started:
Being Vegetarian at a Restaurant
Eating out and sticking to your vegetarian diet can be a challenge. Here are some tips to help you:
- Plan in advance. Think about what kind of restaurant you want to go to so you’ll have more plant-based options. In addition to dedicated vegetarian spots, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Japanese restaurants tend to always have multiple vegetarian diet options.
- Scan the menu ahead of time. Most menus are available online on the restaurant’s website.
- Talk to your server. Don’t assume that your server knows that food prepared in chicken stock isn’t vegetarian or that lard and gelatin are animal products. Be specific about your dietary requirements to avoid surprises in your meal.
- Ask for a substitution. Many restaurants will gladly substitute meatless pasta or exchange a baked potato for a fried side order. You can also request that your meal be prepared with unsaturated oil to help with your cholesterol levels.
RELATED: How to Follow a Vegetarian Ketogenic Diet in a Healthy Way
How to Talk to People Who Question Your Vegetarian Diet
Family members and friends who are unfamiliar with a vegetarian diet may try to discourage you because they think a diet without animal foods isn’t safe or nutritious. That’s not accurate, and in fact, evidence has shown the opposite to be true. Here are ways to get their support:
- Educate yourself. Be ready to explain the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Assure family members and friends that a balanced vegetarian diet isn’t missing any nutrients compared with one that includes animal products.
- Don’t preach. You’ve decided to pursue a vegetarian diet because you think it’s a healthier choice, but don’t expect to change someone else’s diet. If you’re concerned others might be judgmental, consider phrasing it as you experimenting with your own diet for your own health.
- Be patient. A vegetarian diet can seem like a radical idea to people who aren’t familiar with it, especially older people, who are less likely to be vegetarian, according to a Gallup poll. Try to seek out like-minded people through vegetarian social media groups and vegetarian blogs or by following vegetarian lifestyle influencers on social media.
- Be responsible. There are tons of vegetarian meal options that will please everyone, even strict omnivores, but still, not everyone may be on board all the time, especially around holidays, when dining traditions may revolve around meat. Be prepared to do your own cooking and shopping, and have the plant-based ingredients you need on hand.
- Share your food. Once you’ve convinced your family that a vegetarian diet is healthy, prepare a vegetarian meal once a week to share with them. Show them that a vegetarian diet can also be appetizing and filling.
Additional reporting by Kaitlin Sullivan.