If you've given up meat and you're eating a strictly plant-based diet, you can certainly reap tons of health benefits, but only if you're getting the key nutrients your body needs to thrive.
While going meat-less can lower risk of heart disease and stroke, supply lots of fiber and keep you regular, and help in weight loss efforts, says Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, NYC-based Registered Dietician, bestselling author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet, all those good rewards might go to waste if you're deficient in critical vitamins and minerals.
And, in many cases, animal protein is easier for absorption and accessibility, so you have to be especially careful about dietary requirements and intakes as a vegetarian. Here are a few nutrients you need to get enough of (and might even want to supplement, to be sure).
And, by the way, if you're taking it a step further and going on a vegan diet, here are your go-to essentials to have on hand.
Zinc, a trace mineral, becomes a great concern when cutting meat out of one’s diet. Rich sources include red meat and shellfish, especially oysters. And, while nuts, seeds, and leafy greens also have it, it's less readily absorbed by the body, says Zuckerbrot.
And, zinc can help keep bones, skin, and teeth strong, as well as improve the immune system, so it's important not to skimp.
Meatless foods that are high in zinc are pumpkin seeds, cashews, yogurt, mushrooms, spinach, and cocoa powder, she says. However, it's important to get adequate concentrations of these foods, and maybe even pair a few together in meals, to boost absorption.
And, a supplement could help if levels are still low.
Many meats contain full amino acid profiles, but vegetarian sources are often incomplete proteins. Of course, pairing can create a complete protein, such as a combination of rice and beans, but you need to be mindful when planning meals.
And, protein is necessary for bodily functions, muscle repair, metabolic processes, and stronger bones, hair, and nails, she says. So, if you're giving up meat, you'll still need to give yourself enough plant protein. A basic bowl of pasta and olive oil isn't going to cut it, unless you add in beans, legumes, cheese, or tofu.
Need help picking out a few delicious plant protein options? Zuckerbrot shares a few examples.
You can add soy (½ cup, 10 grams of protein) as tofu, for instance, to a stir fry, or use hemp seeds (2 Tbsp, 10 grams of protein) as an oatmeal topper.
A few more: Seitan (⅓ cup, 21 grams of protein); Tempeh (4 oz., 22 grams of protein); Greek Yogurt (1 serving size, 18 grams of protein); Egg (1 egg, 7 grams of protein).
3. Vitamin B12
This is a big one. There aren't any plant-based foods that have Vitamin B12, as it can only be found in animal sources. If you're vegetarian, you can still get it in eggs and dairy, but if you're bordering on veganism, watch out.
Still, this deficiency can be quite common in vegetarians, so you might want to supplement if you're worried. And, you can always get your levels checked by a doctor for a better recommendation.
Top sources include eggs and dairy, like cheese, yogurt, and milk, says Zuckerbrot.
Iron is really important for sustainable energy levels (and preventing fatigue), as well as red blood cell production. And, when you're deficient, you run the risk of becoming anemic, says Zuckerbrot.
Anemia comes from too low a count of red blood cells, and it can cause lightheadedness, fatigue, thinning hair, and pale skin. Not good.
So, it's important to eat enough iron-rich foods, like beans, lentils, kale, spinach, and soy, she says. (Try these kale baked eggs for an easy breakfast.)
What's more, "vitamin C assists your body with the absorption of iron so mix your kale with red peppers for the perfect vitamin C + iron combo," she says. (Here are a few ways to get that daily dose of vitamin C.)
And, "avoid drinking tea, which contains oxalates and inhibits the absorption of iron with your food," she adds.
Believe it or not, dairy products are not your only sources of calcium: Kale, broccoli, spinach, almonds, and tofu are good too, says Zuckerbrot.
So, if you happen to dislike cheese and milk, don't be too alarmed. Although a supplement might be helpful in this case, you can easily get your fill through plant-based foods, instead.
Calcium is required for strong bones and muscles, as it boosts your bone density and lowers risk of osteoporosis, she adds, so if you're low, you could be putting your health at risk.