Photo: Plant-based stew with chickpeas and vegetables

by By Sabra Leomo, Registered Dietitian

  • “What do you eat for protein?”
  • “Do you eat a lot of salads?” 

These are common questions people ask when discussing a plant-based diet. Fortunately, a well-planned plant-based diet can easily provide all the nutrients necessary to thrive. In fact, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states in its position paper on vegetarian diets that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The academy goes on to say “These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.1

Part of a well-planned plant-based diet is knowing what nutrients to be aware of and how to incorporate them into your diet. Overall, focus on eating a varied diet that includes protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and either dairy or dairy alternatives for calcium. A few important nutrients to be aware of include: protein, iron, vitamin C, calcium, zinc, vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Protein

Most vegetarians and vegans meet or exceed their protein requirements. Focus on adding protein-rich foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy to meals and snacks throughout the day to meet your protein needs. Whole grains and vegetables like spinach and peas also contain protein and add variety to your diet. 

Iron

This essential nutrient is vital for many functions within the body, such as transporting oxygen within red blood cells. There are two types of iron: heme iron is found in meat products and nonheme iron is found in plants. 

Nonheme iron isn’t absorbed as efficiently by the body as heme iron. However, despite the lower absorption most vegetarians consume enough iron. Additionally, the heme iron found in meat has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease2, cancer3 and diabetes4. The risk for these diseases is not associated with the non-heme iron found in a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet is actually protective against many chronic diseases.  

There are a few things you can do to increase iron absorption: include foods high in vitamin C with your meals and only drink coffee/tea or take calcium supplements between meals. 

Vitamin C

Vegetarians tend to exceed non-vegetarians when it comes to vitamin C consumption. This is mainly because vegetarians tend to eat more fruits and veggies which provide vitamin C along with other amazing nutrients.

Adequate vitamin C consumption is especially important for vegetarians because vitamin C increases the absorption of nonheme iron that is found in plant-based foods.  Red peppers, kale, spinach, papaya, and oranges are a few options that are all a good source of vitamin C. 

Calcium

Dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium but there are also plant-based sources. Kale, broccoli, black beans, almonds and almond butter are all plant-based sources of calcium. Some fortified products have calcium added during processing; these include non-dairy milk, orange juice, and some breakfast cereals. Tofu that is set using calcium salts is another way to add calcium to your diet.

Zinc

This mineral is important for immune function, wound healing, and growth in children. Zinc is not stored in the body in large amounts so it is important to get adequate amounts on a daily basis. Grains and legumes are good sources of zinc. However, they also contain compounds called phytates that can limit iron absorption. Soaking legumes and sprouting grains can increase the absorption of zinc.

Vitamin B-12

This vitamin is generally not found in plant foods. Vegans need to supplement their diet with foods fortified with vitamin B-12 or discuss taking a supplement with their physician. Some foods fortified with vitamin B-12 include nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, meat alternatives and non-dairy milk. Be sure to check the label to be certain the product is fortified! 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Your body can’t make omega-3 fatty acids, which is why they are considered essential and you need to get them from food. There are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids: 

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

EPA and DHA are mainly found in cold water fish so we will focus on ALA which is found in many plant sources. Our bodies convert ALA into EPA and DHA but the conversion is not very efficient. Daily consumption of seeds (chia seeds, groundflaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hempseeds, hempseed oil) and walnuts helps to optimize omega-3 fatty acid levels. 

A well-planned plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients needed for health during any stage of life. Down to Earth has hundreds of great taste-tested recipes on their website. Try one of these recipes to get you started: Three Bean ChiliTofu Pancit, and Beet Burgers. Enjoy! 

Footnotes: 
  1. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets”. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/vegetarian-diet.ashx. Accessed 13 September 2017.
  2. “Dietary intake of heme iron and risk of cardiovascular disease: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies”. PubMed.gov. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25439662. Accessed 27 September 2017.
  3. “Iron and Cancer Risk—A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Epidemiological Evidence”. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. AACR Publications.  http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/23/1/12. Accessed 27 September 2017.
  4. “Heme iron intake and risk of new-onset diabetes in a Mediterranean population at high risk of cardiovascular disease: an observational cohort analysis”. PubMed.gov. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4228354/. Accessed 27 September 2017.