Key Nutrients

In the past, there have been some nutrition issues and concerns with vegetarian diets. People following a vegetarian diet need to consider a few key nutrients when meal planning:

  • vitamin B-12
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • calcium
  • vitamin D
  • iron

Eating a variety of plant-based foods is important. Many foods are fortified now as well so some of these nutrients are less of a concern. Fortification is a process where extra nutrients are added to a food. Also, many people take supplements to make sure they get enough of all nutrients.

Below is a list of the nutrients that vegetarian diets lack sometimes and the foods to eat so you get enough of them: 

Vitamin B-12 — B12 is only found in animal products and fortified foods, so it can be difficult for those who follow a vegan diet to get enough of it. You can get some B-12 from fortified soy and rice beverages, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified meat substitutes, and nutritional yeasts. People who follow a vegan diet should take a daily supplement to get enough. Most multi-vitamins have B-12, but check the label to make sure. It should be listed as cobalamin or cyanocobalamin. Dairy products and eggs are a good source of B-12 for lacto-ovo-vegetarians.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids — Get them from walnuts, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, soybeans, soybean oil, canola oil, or wheat germ.

Calcium — Get this from dairy products if you include them in your diet. Calcium is also in leafy green vegetables (bok choy, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fortified fruit juices, calcium-set tofu, fortified soy milk or rice milk, and fortified breakfast cereals. Note that spinach is not a good source of calcium even though it is a leafy green vegetable. Other compounds in spinach prevent the calcium it has from being absorbed and used in the body.

Vitamin D — Get this from fortified milk, fortified yogurt, cheese, or egg yolk if you include them in your diet. It is also in some brands of fortified soy milk and rice milk, fortified orange juice, and some fortified breakfast cereals and margarines. Sun exposure can also help your body make its own vitamin D. There is a lot of research being done about vitamin D deficiency right now. Some experts are starting to recommend vitamin D supplements, especially for older adults.

Iron — Iron-deficiency anemia is as common in vegetarian diets as it is in non-vegetarian diets. Get iron from beans, lentils, dried fruits, enriched grain products, tofu, and cooked green vegetables. Try to eat these iron sources with a good source of vitamin C like citrus fruits (oranges, lemon/lemon juice, and grapefruit), tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, or strawberries. This will help your body better absorb the iron.


Meal Planning for Vegetarian Diets—A vegetarian diet is a healthy option, even if you have diabetes.

Protein and Vegetarian Diets—There are many plant foods that provide protein in a vegetarian diet.

Meal Ideas for Different Vegetarian Diets—Meal planning ideas for vegan diets, lacto-vegetarian diets, and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.

Other Types of Vegetarian Diets—Ovo-vegetarian diet, Macrobiotic diet, Raw foods diet and Fruitarian.

Key Nutrients—Careful planning and eating a variety of plant-based foods is important to ensure you get enough of certain nutrients.

  • Last Reviewed: August 1, 2013
  • Last Edited: November 21, 2013

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