Becoming a vegetarian or vegan, by forgoing consumption of some or all animal products, has been linked to many health benefits, including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index. While vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol – nutrients whose consumption should be limited anyway – they also tend to be lower in Vitamin B12, iron, protein, and calcium. Deficiencies in each of these nutrients pose their own unique sets of concerns, so it’s important for vegetarians and vegans to take steps to eat a balanced diet that includes alternative sources of nutrients that might otherwise be lacking in a diet that excludes or limits animal products.
Vitamin B12, which helps the body convert food into energy and keeps the nervous system running efficiently, is found only in animal products. While some plant-based foods like cereal are fortified with B12, it is recommended that vegetarians and, especially, vegans, talk to their doctors about receiving a B12 shot to ensure their levels are adequate. A deficiency in Vitamin B12, unlike other nutrient deficiencies that can be resolved by taking mega-doses of supplements, is best corrected with a monthly shot.
Iron is an essential part of the body’s production of red blood cells; an iron deficiency can lead to anemia. While iron is found in both animal (in the form of heme iron) and plant products (in the form of nonheme iron), the body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently. Iron can still be absorbed from plant sources, and it is recommended that vegetarians and vegans include a variety of them in their diets. Good plant-based sources of iron include nuts, seeds, beans, and green leafy vegetables. Fortified foods are also a good option.
Protein helps the body build, repair, and maintain tissues (such as muscles) and organs. As with iron, the body best absorbs animal-based sources of protein, as animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that the body can’t produce on its own. Two plant proteins – soy and quinoa – also contain all nine of these amino acids, so they are excellent choices for vegetarians and vegans to consume. Combining different sources of protein – e.g., grains (like rice) and legumes (like beans) – to ensure adequate amino acid intake is also a smart strategy.
Calcium, crucial to bone health, is abundant in dairy products. It is also naturally found in green leafy veggies and beans and is commonly added into fortified soy products and other non-dairy products like orange juice. Again, calcium is best-absorbed when it comes from animal sources, but a carefully-planned diet rich in plant-based sources of calcium can usually meet the body’s needs for this nutrient.
If you choose to forgo some or all animal products, a healthy, balanced diet should be able to meet most of your nutritional needs. However, in some cases, supplementation – with B12 and other vitamins and minerals – may be necessary, so make sure to speak to your doctor to determine a plan of action.