Your Guide to Vegetarian Nutrition

Your Guide to Vegetarian Nutrition explains the special vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy on a vegetarian diet.

Most people assume that a vegetarian diet is a healthy one. And it is. But you can't get enough zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 DHA and EPA from plant sources.

Vegetarian Nutrition and Zinc Deficiency

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that your body needs to grow, develop, and heal wounds. You also need it for your immune system, neurological function, taste, and reproduction.

The problem is, the only good sources are red meat and shellfish.

Most multivitamin and mineral supplements have all the zinc you need. If you don't take a multi, there are zinc supplements. Another option is to eat foods that are fortified with it.

How much zinc do you need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 8 mg. a day for women, and 11 mg. a day for men. But if you're a strict vegetarian, the daily requirement is 50% higher. ¹

Why? Because vegetarians eat a lot of fiber, grains, and legumes. These foods have phytic acid, and phytic acid interferes with zinc absorption. ²

Tip: The enzymatic action of yeast reduces the level of phytic acid in foods. So, leavened, whole grain bread has more bioavailable zinc (zinc that your body can use) than unleavened, whole grain bread.

You can increase the bioavailability of zinc from whole foods by using one of the following methods: ³

  • Sprouting (to germinate lentils, mung beans, seeds, nuts, or grains)
  • Soaking ( to prepare for cooking)
  • Yeasting ( to make bread)
  • Fermenting (to make sourdough bread and tempeh)
  • Roasting (to toast nuts)

Best sources of vegetarian zinc

You can get small amounts of zinc from plant foods. These are the best sources:

Crimini mushrooms (5 oz.) 1.56 mg
Spinach (1 cup)1.37 mg
Pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup)2.57 mg
Sesame seeds (1/4 cup)2.8 mg
Cashews, dry roasted (1 ounce) 1.6 mg
Bran Flakes (1 cup) 2.0 mg
Wheat Germ (2 tablespoons) 2.7 mg
Adzuki Beans 2 mg
Lentils 1.3 mg
Tahini 1.4 mg

Vegetarian Nutrition and Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin. You need it to make DNA and RNA, and to maintain healthy nerve cells. B-12 also works with other B vitamins to make red blood cells, and produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e). SAM-e is important for a healthy immune system and mood.

How much B-12 do you need?

The only good sources of vitamin B12 are meat and fish. So vegetarians and vegans have to rely on fortified foods and supplements. Studies show that both do an excellent job in preventing deficiencies.4

The RDA is only 2.9 mcg (1 mcg, or microgram = 1,000 mg) for adults over 19. If pregnant, 2.6 mcg, or lactating, 2.8 mcg. The Daily Value (DV) is 6 mcg.

Keep in mind that there are absorption issues with B-12. The older you get, the less your body can absorb. If you have digestive problems, they can also interfere with absorption.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) and Daily Value (DV) Explained

The RDA is the average, daily dietary nutrient intake level that's sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals in a particular life stage and gender group.¹

Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are expanding and replacing the RDAs.

Daily Values were developed to serve as a reference to help consumers use information on food labels to plan an overall healthy diet. The DV is based on expert dietary advice about how much, or how little, of some key nutrients you should eat each day, depending on whether you eat 2,000 or 2,500 calories a day.²

1 National Academy of Sciences., Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements

2 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (1999)

Vegetarian Nutrition and Omega-3 DHA and EPA fatty acids

More Reasons to Consume ALA Rich Foods

ALA promotes liver restoration, slows the aging process, and converts glucose to energy.

Most people are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids and their health benefits. The body can't make these important fatty acids, so you have to get them from food.

There are three types. Omega-3 DHA, EPA, and ALA. You need DHA and EPA for your heart, memory, focus, and eyes. But, you can only get them from fish, or a fish oil supplement.

The good news is, your body can convert omega-3 ALA to DHA. The not-so-good news is, only a small percent gets converted.

Foods high in omega-3 DHA can slow down brain aging because it helps make the myelin (the insulation around the nerves) stronger, so nerve impulses travel faster.

From Healthy Aging for Dummies, by Brent Agin and Sharon Perkins

Best sources of Omega-3 ALA

The foods with the highest amounts of omega-3 ALA are chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Since they're higher in ALA, you'll get more converted to omega-3 DHA.

Why vegetarians need 1.8% more iron than non-vegetarians

Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs to carry oxygen throughout the body. It's also important for immune health, cognitive development, temperature regulation, and energy metabolism.

For nonvegetarians, the recommended Daily Value (DV) is18 mg. The RDA is 8 mg for men and women over 50, and 18 mg for women between 19 - 50.

It's recommended that vegetarians get 1.8 times that of nonvegetarians. This is because iron isn't as easily absorbed from plant sources.

What are the best sources of iron?

The best sources are animal proteins, but you can get some from cooked soybeans, lentils, oatmeal, cooked spinach, and whole-grain bread and pasta.

To stay healthy on a vegetarian diet, it's important that you have a well balanced diet and follow the Vegetarian Nutrition Guide above.


1 Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements, Jennifer J. Otten, Jennifer Pitzi Hellwig, Linda D. Meyers, Editors, National Academy of Sciences

2 Prasad, A. S. (2003), "Zinc deficiency", British Medical Journal 326 (7386): 409, doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7386.409, PMC 1125304, PMID 12595353

3 Brenda Davis, Vesanto Melina, Becoming Vegan: the complete guide to adopting a healthy plant-based diet.

4 Katherine L Tucker, Sharron Rich, Irwin Rosenberg, Paul Jacques, Gerard Dallal, Peter WF Wilson and Jacob Selhub, "Plasma vitamin B12 concentrations relate to intake source in the Framingham Offspring Study," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71, No. 2, 514-522, February 2000.

Other Sources

Linus Pauling Institute at Ohio State University, Micronutrient Information Center

The World's Healthiest Foods, Fact Sheet: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Goyens PLL, Spilker ME, Zock PL, et al., "Conversion of α-linolenic acid in humans is influenced by the absolute amounts of α-linolenic acid and linoleic acid in the diet and not by their ratio," Am. J. Clin. Nutr. , 2006

Burdge GC, Calder PC, "Conversion of α-linolenic acid to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human adults," Reprod. Nutr. Dev.

Burdge GC, Wootton SA., "Conversion of α-linolenic acid to eicosapentaenoic, docosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in young women, " Br. J. Nutr., 2002. Nutr. , 2006

NIH Clinical Center website

Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods; Asian traditions and modern nutrition.

Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements

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