The Simple Truth About Vegetarian Nutrition

When it comes to ideas about vegetarian diets, people seem to fall into one of two camps. One group believes a vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet on the planet. The other warns vegetarians about all the important nutrients they’re missing. (I was once warned I was not getting enough vitamins in my diet because I don’t eat meat.)

A vegetarian diet, like any other diet, can be balanced or unbalanced. There are nutrients that vegetarians need to pay extra attention to because they are not easily to obtain from plant-based foods.

Vegans (those who don’t eat animal products of any kind), not vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, are more likely to be at risk for nutrient deficiencies.

The best things in life are not easy, so let’s take a closer look at some potential pitfalls to avoid when considering vegetarian nutrition.


Most people think of dairy products as the best sources of calcium, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium for vegans. Dark leafy greens (including broccoli), tofu that is processed with calcium sulfate, and other fortified vegan foods, such as soy milk, are examples. There is also calcium in blackstrap molasses and almonds.

One word of caution, though, if you rely on greens for calcium: a compound known as oxalic acid in some veggies can interfere with calcium absorption. Spinach, rhubarb, and chard contain a lot of oxalic acid, so it may be better to rely on greens like broccoli and collards for calcium instead.


Iron is perhaps the mineral most associated with meat. But vegans can find good sources of iron in beans and dark leafy greens. (Are you getting the idea that those dark leafy greens are awesome?)

There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron is the iron we get from plant sources, and while it’s not absorbed as easily as heme iron, iron deficiency anemia is no more common in vegans than it is in carnivores.

One trick is to include foods rich in vitamin C with your beans and greens, because vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. There are even some foods that are rich in both iron and vitamin C, such as broccoli and bok choy. Or try some vitamin-C-rich tomato sauce with your beans. (Here’s a great recipe.)


Most meat-eaters consume a lot more protein than they need. Maybe this is why they’re so concerned that vegetarians don’t get enough. Don’t get me wrong; protein is important. If you’re a vegan, you’ll need to be sure to combine foods correctly because few plant foods are complete sources of protein (“complete” proteins contain all of the essential amino acids).

Soy and quinoa are among the few complete plant-based proteins, but there are other options as well. Combine rice with beans or nut butters with whole grain bread and you’ll have all the essential amino acids in one place. For most vegans, eating a variety of nuts, seeds and legumes is sufficient for meeting protein needs.

So if you’re concerned that you don’t know enough about vegetarian nutrition to be healthy, start here. Then continue to read and learn more. You’ll probably come to a simple conclusion before long; if planned well, the benefits of vegetarian nutrition outweigh those other kinds of diets!

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Maria Kuzmiak, M.A. is a health and well-being writer with a background in nutrition, psychology and education and a passion for yoga. She has written hundreds of articles, blogs and newsletters for clients in health-related fields, particularly those specializing in yoga, natural medicine, nutrition, and spiritual health and healing. Maria has also worked as a nutritionist, teacher and technical editor. Learn more about her writing at

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