Whether you’ve been meat-free for awhile or you’re just beginning on a plant-based food journey, you may be overwhelmed by all the nutritional information that’s out there. When reading things online, it might feel like you need a science degree to figure out the exact amounts and combinations of nutrients needed to live a healthy, energetic, vegetarian lifestyle.
By all means, keep educating yourself and always be proactive about your diet and lifestyle—but keep it simple. Living a healthy vegetarian life really comes down to success in these five areas:
Getting enough protein
Protein is critical to daily nutrition because it’s not something stored in the body. We must constantly replenish with adequate intake for development of bone, muscle, blood and cartilage, not to mention healthy hair and nails. Protein also increases satiety, giving us a feeling of fullness and naturally deterring us from reaching for heavy carbs.
The U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA)—a minimum nutrition requirement—is 0.36 grams of protein per pound that we weigh. Although plant protein is sufficient for all humans (regardless of age, sex, lifestyle and activity level), vegans and vegetarians may want to up that number by 10 percent (0.41 grams) to account for the fact that some plant proteins don’t digest as well as animal proteins. A 150-pound woman, for example, needs approximately 61.5 grams of protein per day.
To calculate, just multiply your weight by 0.41 to get your daily protein recommendation. (You may also find this interactive Dietary Reference Intakes calculator useful for figuring out how much protein as well as other vitamins, minerals and macronutrients you need every day.)
Once you have your protein number, keep track for a couple of days, taking note of what you’re eating and how many grams of protein you’re getting. Aside from the usual beans, nuts and soy-based foods, you may be surprised to know you can get ample protein from certain veggies, such as:
- One cup of broccoli = nearly four grams of protein
- One cup of Brussels sprouts = three grams of protein
- One cup of cooked spinach = more than five grams of protein
As well as from seeds, including:
- Three tablespoons of hemp seed (sprinkle in cereal, salad, smoothie) = 10 grams of protein
- ¼ cup of roasted pumpkin seeds = nine grams of protein
- Two tablespoons of sunflower seeds = six grams of protein
And also grains:
- ½ cup of Quaker Oat Bran = seven grams of protein
- One slice Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Bread = four grams of protein
- One cup amaranth = more than nine grams of protein
Of course if you’re a vegetarian who eats eggs and dairy products, it’s easy to get generous servings of protein. A hard-boiled egg has about seven or eight grams, depending on the size of the egg. FAGE Total Greek yogurt comes in at 18 grams of protein in a single serving.
Once you’re comfortable knowing how many daily portions of protein you’re eating and what to strive for, you can relax a little. If you’re off from one day to the next, it’s not going to impact your overall health or your body’s daily needs.
If you weren’t getting enough protein, says Christine Hurley, RD, LD, CDE, a medical nutrition therapist at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health, you might have symptoms such as lack of energy, thinning hair, edema (fluid retention, especially in the legs and ankles) and muscle wasting.
If you’re concerned about your protein intake, the only way to “really know” is to ask your physician to request bloodwork and to also meet with a registered dietitian who can calculate the appropriate amount of protein just for you, based on your lifestyle and other factors.
Having enough energy
Vegetarians and vegans certainly aren’t the only ones who need an energy boost. Many people feel run down, fatigued and low-energy just going about their daily lives. There are many factors that come into play when it comes to energy reserves, such as the amount of sleep you get as well as caffeine and sugar intake. There are also certain nutrients we might not be getting enough of, or certain eating behaviors that lead to lethargy.
Mary Ann Martin, RD, LDN, CDE, a medical nutrition therapist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health, advises, “Include a wide variety of plant-based whole foods at regular intervals throughout the day. This will give you a steady supply of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients that will also energize you.”
While it’s important to pay special attention to energy sources from diet, vegetarians also need to know they’re at risk for having vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 is found mostly in meat, seafood, and some dairy products as well as fortified cereals. This vitamin helps build DNA in the body, shields us against heart disease and stroke as well as memory loss and dementia, plus helps moderate hormone, mood and brain activity. It may be best known, however, for its ability to boost energy. When our bodies are B12 deficient, symptoms may include:
- Weak muscles
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
A simple solution is to supplement with B12, often found in liquid form and taken under the tongue. If you notice a difference after taking it, then your body has probably been missing it. Some people also like nutritional yeast, says Martin. This is a powdery, cheese-like “topping” rich in B vitamins that you can sprinkle over popcorn or mix up with scrambled eggs.
Meat eaters—take heed. There is clinical evidence that 40 percent of people between ages 26 and 83—even those who consume meat and dairy—have B12 levels in the low normal range or are “deficient” or “near deficient.”
In vegetarians as well as those who eat meat, advancing age also affects the body’s ability to absorb this crucial vitamin. So be aware of B12.
Combating culinary boredom
No doubt you’ve heard well-meaning non-vegetarians wondering how you don’t get bored with a plant-based diet. Some people think salad, lots and lots of salad, when in fact there’s such a variety of plant-based foods and combinations as well as entire websites and recipe books dedicated to eating an interesting array of plant foods.
Nonetheless, it can get boring if you eat the same things over and over again. Once you’ve gotten into your vegetarian groove, it’s easy to slip into a comfort zone, always choosing the same types of vegetables and fruits, the same baked tofu, the usual legumes and the same old almond butter. Eating the same stuff all the time could set you up for snacking from the vending machine at work or overindulging in less healthy foods—just to break out of the rut.
“To eliminate boredom, try grilling or roasting your vegetables,” says Lynn Nichols, RD, LDN, CDE, a medical nutrition therapist at Riddle Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “You can also try making your own veggie burgers, making your own healthy smoothies, or baking some fudgy black bean brownies for a treat.” Nichols also recommends giving boring salads a boost with quinoa, sunflower seeds, nuts, dates, apples, edamame or chickpeas.
Chris Hurley at Bryn Mawr Hospital has another cure for boredom (food and otherwise): non-starchy vegetables, which are water-based foods low in calories, high in fiber and antioxidants, and binge worthy to boot. Think artichoke hearts, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes.
You can also shake things up simply by going on a grocery shopping “adventure” in which you challenge yourself to reach for food items you’ve never purchased before. How about some creamy nut cheese made from cashews, to enjoy with celery sticks, or one of those healthy grains you’ve heard of but don’t know what to do with. Be spontaneous and bring it home anyway. You can always go online and search up a simple recipe for it. Chances are you’ve already got the veggies and seasonings you need to whip something up.
Getting enough iron and zinc
We need iron so our bodies can produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, we can become fatigued, lethargic, irritable and dizzy. It turns out that vegetarians are no more prone to iron deficiency than meat eaters. After all, many plant foods including broccoli, beans, spinach, lentils, dried fruits, and fortified breads and cereals provide plenty of iron. Some of these same sources (beans, seeds, nuts) are good sources of zinc as well, which we need for metabolism, a robust immune system, and even genetic expression. The challenge is making sure that the iron and zinc are being well absorbed by the body.
Certain factors inhibit iron absorption. These include calcium as well as tannins (molecules found in tea, coffee, and skins of nuts), in addition to phytates found in beans and grains, and oxalates, which are compounds found in foods such as spinach, soy milk, sweet potatoes, nuts and berries.
What does this mean for vegetarians who rely on these wholesome foods? It simply means being mindful to include foods that are high in vitamin C, for example, to help with iron absorption. Some foods, such as broccoli, are blessed with both iron and vitamin C so the work is done with one food. You can also think in terms of iron + C combinations, such as tofu with bok choy, vegetarian chili (beans with tomato sauce), or a fortified breakfast cereal with a side of grapefruit or small glass of orange juice.
If you take a calcium supplement, consider taking it at a time during the day when it won’t interfere with iron absorption from your meals and snacks. The recommendation from Bryn Mawr’s Chris Hurley is that calcium and iron be separated by two to four hours. Also avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meals as the tannins will compete with iron absorption.
Keep in mind that certain people are more prone to iron-deficiency, such as menstruating women, pregnant women, teenage girls and the elderly. If you have concerns about iron deficiency, be sure to talk to your doctor. He or she can prescribe blood work to determine whether or not you need iron supplementation.
Getting calcium and vitamin D combined
Calcium and vitamin D go hand-in-hand for bone health. Calcium, needed to develop and maintain strong, healthy bones, is given a boost by vitamin D, which helps with absorption. D is also credited with supporting muscles, tissues, and the immune system, and with prevention of different cancers and even heart disease, mood, and weight gain. Many Americans are not getting enough sunlight (which causes vitamin D production in the skin) and it is only available in a few foods such as fatty fish and egg yolks. For vegetarians, it’s important to get D from sources such as fortified soy milk or cereal, or from a nutritional supplement.
And just as oxalates interfere with iron and zinc absorption, they also interfere with calcium absorption. So if you’re eating spinach for calcium (it has 29 milligrams per cup, cooked), the oxalates in the spinach affect absorption. A good dose of D can help offset this imbalance.
By eating a plant-based diet, you’re well on your way to optimal nutrition, but there’s always room for improvement. The nutritional journey is never over as your body, your health needs and lifestyle change over time. Keep making adjustments to ensure you’re getting the nutritional benefits from your food sources so you can live a full and active life.
Need some guidance? Schedule an appointment with a Main Line Health registered dietitian. Many insurance providers offer up to six nutrition counseling visits per year at no additional cost to you. Check with your provider to see what’s covered.
 Tucker KL, Hannan MT, Qiao, N, et al. Low plasma vitamin B12 is associated with lower BMD: the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. J Bone Miner Res. 2005 Jan; 20(1): 152–158. Published online 2004 Oct 25.