8 key nutrients to include in a plant-based diet

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A meat-free diet is great for your health and the planet's ... just remember to pay attention to these key nutrients.

Research shows that eating healthy, primarily vegetarian foods is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases, weight gain and death. Meanwhile, the average amount of meat consumed per person globally has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, a trend with terrible consequences for environment. So for people interested in, you know, staying alive and doing so on a habitable planet ... limiting or cutting out meat altogether is a great thing to do. (It's also nice for the animals.)

But alas, a vegan or vegetarian can not live on french fries alone. (And yes, I speak from experience.)

For anyone newly embarking on a plant-based diet, a visit with your doctor or a dietician is not a bad idea. But it's also helpful to see a quick summary of the nutrients that may need some extra attention amongst people who are not eating animal products. Here are eight key ones to keep in mind.

1. Iron

Red blood cells love iron; fortunately, steak and liver aren't the only sources of this essential mineral. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grains, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit (hi, raisins!) are good sources of iron. That said, people who do not eat meat, poultry, or seafood need almost twice as much iron as is listed in recommendations because plant-based iron (nonheme) is not absorbed as readily as the heme iron of animal foods.

The recommendation for non-vegetarian adult men 19 to 50 years old is 8 mg; non-vegetarian adult women of the same age range should aim for 18 mg. For those not eating meat, then, the numbers should be doubled.

2. Calcium

We need calcium to keep our bones strong – and most people get theirs from milk and dairy foods. If you are not eating dairy, calcium can be found in dark green vegetables – think turnip and collard greens, kale, and broccoli. It is also in calcium-enriched and fortified products like juices, cereals, soy milk and tofu.

3. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for bone health, immune function and keeping inflammation in check – and importantly for those on a plant-based diet, it helps the gut absorb calcium. But it's a tricky one since it doesn't naturally occur in very many foods. If you spend time in the sun, you're probably pretty good – though Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. It is added to fortified products like some brands of milk, soy and rice milk, and some cereals. If you don't eat enough fortified foods, and you have limited sun exposure, you may need a vitamin D supplement, notes the Mayo Clinic.

4. Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 supports the body’s nerve and blood cells and helps prevent anemia. Since it is only found in animal products – not plants – it can be one of the more obvious nutrients for vegans to pay attention to. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get sufficient amounts in milk, eggs, and other dairy products. Vegans can look for B-12 fortified foods like nutritional yeast, cereals, breads, etc. It is also included in multi-vitamins.

5. Protein

We need protein to keep our skin, bones, muscles and organs healthy. It is obviously in animal products, but one can get enough protein from plants as well, especially if you eat a variety of them throughout the day, notes Mayo, adding that "plant sources include soy products and meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains."

6. Zinc

Zinc helps the immune system defend against vexing bacteria and viruses. It also assists the body in making proteins and DNA, helps wounds heal and is important for proper taste and smell. Who knew? Oysters offer the most zinc – for plant-based eaters, looks for it in fortified breakfast cereals, beans, nuts, and whole grains. That said, the National Institutes of Health offers this caveat: Vegetarians may have trouble getting enough since they do not eat meat, which is a good source of zinc. "Also, the beans and grains they typically eat have compounds that keep zinc from being fully absorbed by the body. For this reason, vegetarians might need to eat as much as 50% more zinc than the recommended amounts."

7. Omega-3 fatty acids

Our bodies are good at making a number of fats that it needs, but alas, it hasn't figured out how to make omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health and play other protective roles as well. Fish and eggs are good sources of omega-3s, but one can get them from plants as well; think vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. That said, Mayo says that if you only get plant-based omega-3s, "you may also want to consider supplements, since the body doesn't always convert the plant-based form efficiently."

8. Iodine

We rely on iodine to make thyroid hormones, which control the body’s metabolism, and regulate growth and function of key organs. Americans rarely are iodine deficient because just 1/4 teaspoon of iodized salt daily provides a significant amount of iodine. But if you exclusively use sea salt or other fancy salt that isn't iodized, make sure you're getting iodine somewhere. Fortunately, seaweed has loads of it. Some varieties of kombu kelp have nearly 2,000 percent of the daily recommendation in one gram! (And yes, you can get too much iodine, so be careful with that kelp. Nori and wakame seaweeds have gentler amounts.) Other good plant-based sources include lima beans and prunes.

Sources: The Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

8 key nutrients to include in a plant-based diet
A meat-free diet is great for your health and the planet's ... just remember to pay attention to these key nutrients.

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