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Updated 25 April 2016

Vegetarian: are you getting all the nutrients you need?

When practicing any type of vegetarian diet you need to be aware of making healthy food choices as well as including the appropriate supplements in your daily regime. Here's what you need to include.

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A vegetarian diet can be truly healthy as many plant foods are low in saturated fat and high in phyto -nutrients vitamins, minerals and fiber. However it requires careful planning to ensure your diet is well balanced including the necessary nutrients your body needs.
 
There are categories of vegetarians that you may fall into:
• Lacto–ovo vegetarian: Lacto–ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish or poultry, but do eat eggs and dairy products. 
• Lacto vegetarian: Lacto vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry or eggs, but do eat dairy products.
• Ovo vegetarian: Ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry or dairy, but do eat eggs
• Pesci–vegetarian: Pesci–vegetarians eat fish, dairy, and eggs but don’t eat meat or poultry.
• Vegan: Vegans avoid eating any animal products. They don’t eat any meat products, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin. Some vegans choose not to wear clothes containing animal products, such as leather, wool, or silk or any products that may have been tested on animals.
 
Here’s a look at the most important nutrients that may lack in your diet 

Protein
Protein is supporting important functions such as maintaining muscle and bone mass, and supporting the immune system. Protein from animal origin is of high quality as they provide all 9 essential amino acids while proteins from plan origin fall short on one or more of these amino acids.

It is therefore important that vegans use good sources such as tofu, tempeh, soya, lentils and seitan.

Research shows that lacto-ovo vegetarians get the recommended daily amount of protein, which is easily obtained by consuming dairy products namely milk, yogurt, and cheese - not forgetting eggs. 

Read: The healthy vegetarian diet

Vitamin B12 

Vitamin B12 is important for the normal metabolism of our body cells and is only found in foods of animal origin. No unfortified plant foods contain a significant amount of vitamin B 12.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians can obtain adequate amounts of Vitamin B12, but vegans should actively include Vitamin B 12 by consuming fortified soya/rice milk or breakfast cereals, or alternatively supplement with Vitamin B12.
 
How much B12 do we need?
We need 2.5mcg of Vitamin B12 is required per day. 


Food Sources: Dairy Foods (e.g. milk, yoghurt and cheese), along with eggs, are the only vegetarian food items that naturally contain significant levels of vitamin B12. Plant foods may be fortified with B12 such as soy beverages, meat alternatives, and ready- to eat breakfast cereals. 

 A daily B12 supplement (tablet) is necessary when B12 –fortified plant foods are not regularly consumed or a B12 injection on a monthly basis
 
Iron
This is an essential mineral for all body cells, even though it is needed only in small quantities. Iron is a component of hemoglobin (the oxygen carrying protein in red blood cells) and plays a major role in transporting oxygen in the body.

Iron from animal products known as haem-iron is more easily absorbed than the iron found in plants such as spinach. Plant foods that contain iron, often contain compounds that reduce the absorption of Iron. 

It is important to get your iron levels tested and discuss supplementation with your dietician or doctor.
 
Tips to increase iron absorption:
• Consume food high in Vitamin C (oranges, grapefruits, guavas, red, yellow and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, papaws) with meals
• Iron supplements may be taken with 500mg Vitamin C to help increase absorption
• You can enhance the absorption of iron by soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking beans, grains and seeds.
• Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals (tannins in the tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption)
 
How much Iron do we need? (* Recommended Daily Intake)

Food Sources: Legumes, iron –fortified foods (cereals), tofu and tempeh, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, eggs, whole grains (e.g. quinoa, brown rice, rolled oats)

Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral that has a wide range of metabolic functions. It is important for growth, the healing of wounds and maintaining a healthy immune system. Studies show that some vegans and vegetarians have slightly lower zinc levels due to the presence of inhibitors (phytic acid) in plant sources (whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes).

Thus the bioavailability may be diminished. It is recommended that vegans consume 50% more than the current DRI recommends for zinc.

How much Zinc do we need?
The recommended Dietary allowance for zinc is 11mg for men and 8mg for women. 
Zinc citrate and zinc gluconate are the most reliable forms of zinc supplements

 Food Sources: Legumes, whole-grains (e.g. quinoa, brown rice, rolled oats, nuts, seeds eggs)
 
Tips to increase zinc absorption
• Soak legumes before cooking or use canned legumes
• Consume sprouted beans, grains, seeds and bread that contain yeast.
• Ensure spouted beans are washed and cooked well to ensure food safety
• Avoid excessive intake of unprocessed wheat bran (high in phytic acid)

 

 Read: Osteoporosis risk for vegetarians

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin”, is a fat soluble vitamin obtained from sunlight exposure, food and dietary supplements. The vitamin helps to regulate calcium absorption, making it a critical nutrient for bone health.

Vitamin D deficiency is a concern as we do not consume enough food sources to meet our requirement such as in eggs (which contain a small dose) and  fortified margarines, milk, soy milk, yoghurts and cheese.  
 
How much safe sun do I need for adequate Vitamin D? 
To get enough sunlight, expose your face, hands, arms and legs for 5-10 minutes between the hours of 10:00 to 15:00pm three times per week.
 
Note: Most vegetarians are unlikely to meet Vitamin D requirements from diet alone. Sun exposure and vitamin D supplements may be needed to meet requirements.

It is important to get your Vitamin D tested and discuss supplementation with your dietitian or doctor.
 
Omega 3 
Diets that do not include fatty fish generally lack the long-chain omega–3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are essential for mental and physical health as well as neurological development.

While it is true that the plant-based omega 3 fatty acid α-linolenic acid (ALA) found in flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil and soybeans can be converted into EPA and DHA, the conversion is believed to be insignificant and inadequate. As a result, it is important for vegetarians to obtain the required EPA and DHA from concentrated microalgae supplements.
 
How much omega 3 do we need?
When taking EPA and DHA as a supplement of 300 to 500 mg/day is commonly recommended.

Being a vegetarian you need to be aware of making healthy food choices and include the appropriate supplements in your daily regime, while enjoying flavorful and delicious meals!

Read More:

Diet tips for pregnant vegetarians

Sports nutrition for vegetarians

Essential tips for new vegetarians

Sources:

“Position Of The American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets". Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.7 (2009): 1266-1282. Web.

Doughman SD, Krupanidhi S, Sanjeevi CB. Omega-3 fatty acids for nutrition and medicine: Considering microalgae oil as a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2007; 3(3):198-203.

Vegetarian Nutrition Evidence Analysis Library: http://www.eatright.org

The dietitians from Nutritional Solutions are Health24's expert team of registered dietitians.

 
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