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If you’ve chosen to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to make sure you’re not missing out on important vitamins, minerals or nutrients. 

In this blog, we look at the essential vitamins, minerals or nutrients you might be missing out on if you don’t eat meat or dairy, and some nutritious plant-based alternatives.

Vegetarian or vegan?

More of us are choosing to follow vegetarian or vegan diets to improve our health, or out of concern for animal welfare or the environmental impacts of meat and dairy production. 

In fact, a survey by Roy Morgan found that 12% of Australians – 2.5 million people – follow vegetarian diets either all or most of the time. 

Vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry and fish, and include dairy and eggs. There are variations on the vegetarian diet such as pescatarian diets, which exclude all meat except fish and seafood. Some vegetarians might cut out dairy or eggs as well. 

Vegan diets exclude all animal products: meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Some vegans also exclude honey as it’s an animal by-product.

The health pros and cons

If you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet based on mostly plant-based food, it’s likely that you’ll have a very healthy diet. 

Some studies even show that people who eat a vegan diet tend to be thinner, and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol thanks to more fibre and less saturated fat in their diets. 

Vegetarian and vegan diets can also be protective against cancer and heart disease.

However, vegans and vegetarians can be deficient in micronutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and omega-3s, which are commonly found in animal products. 

When eliminating animal sources of food, you’ll need to replace those foods with other plant-based foods high in these nutrients, Dietitians Australia says. This will make sure you’re getting all of the nutrition you need.

Children have different nutritional needs from adults, so if your child or teen wants to become vegetarian or vegan, it’s a good idea to talk to an accredited practising dietitian.

A vegan or vegetarian diet based on plant-based foods can be highly nutritious #vegan #vegetarian #nutrition Click To Tweet

Nutrients, vitamins and minerals to monitor on a vegan or vegetarian diet

1. Protein

Protein is a key component of our cells, performing essential functions throughout our bodies such as building and repairing tissues and making hormones and enzymes. 

With so many functions in the body, protein is an important nutrient that’s essential to our health. Our bodies also don’t store it to be used later, but excrete any that’s unused. 

Most Australians who eat meat get more than enough protein, while vegetarians can still get plenty of protein from eggs and dairy products. 

If you’re vegan, you’ll find protein in animal and plant sources such as: 

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dried beans, chickpeas and lentils
  • Soy products such as tofu
  • Nutritional yeast 
  • Spirulina 
  • Oats 
  • Chia seeds
Yogurt is a good source of calcium

2. Calcium

We all need calcium to keep our bones strong and to prevent osteoporosis, which can affect us all later in life. 

Calcium is especially important for children and teenagers when they’re growing so they can form strong bones. It is also important for post-menopausal women and men over 70. 

Generally, we need about 2.5 to 4 serves of dairy foods or an alternative each day. According to Dietitians Australia, one serve equals one cup (250ml) of milk, two slices (40g) of cheese or one tub (200g) of yoghurt. 

If you follow a vegan diet or if you have dairy allergies and don’t eat dairy foods, there are lots of other options to get the calcium you need. Non-dairy calcium-rich foods include:

  • Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, bok choy and parsley 
  • Nuts and seeds such as Brazil nuts, almonds and sesame seed paste (tahini)
  • Tofu 
  • Calcium-fortified drinks such as soy, almond, oat and rice milk (check the label to make sure it’s fortified) 
  • Calcium-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, bread and vegan “meats”

3. Iron

The mineral iron helps make red blood cells and carries oxygen around the body. Iron found in meat, known as “haem” iron, is more bioavailable – which means it’s more easily absorbed – than the iron in plants. 

“Non-haem” iron is harder for our bodies to absorb, but you can still get plenty of iron from plant-based foods. 

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, try including these iron-rich foods in your diet: 

  • Green leafy vegetables 
  • Tofu 
  • Legumes 
  • Oats
  • Sultanas 
  • Almonds 
  • Quinoa 
  • Dried apricots
  • Wholemeal and wholegrain bread 
  • Fortified breakfast cereal

Include some Vitamin C-rich food or juice with your meal to boost the absorption of iron. And try not to drink tea at the same time as your iron-rich meal, as the antioxidants in tea can block the absorption of iron. 

If you feel tired all the time and think your iron levels might be low, see a doctor or a dietitian and get your iron levels tested. Meat-eaters can have low iron levels, too! You can find a local accredited practising dietitian through Dietitians Australia.

Tired and lethargic? If you think you’re low in iron, then see a doctor or an accredited dietitian #nutrition #iron Click To Tweet
If you’re on a vegan diet you may need to take a B12 supplement.

4. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria in soil and the ocean. It’s commonly found in meat – when animals such as cows and sheep graze on grass they consume the B12-producing bacteria – and in seafood. 

Low vitamin B12 intakes can cause anaemia and problems with your nervous system. 

According to Vegan Australia, B12 is the only vitamin that can’t be reliably obtained from a plant-based diet. 

The only reliable vegan sources of B12 are supplements taken two or three times a week. You may choose to eat vegan foods fortified with B12, but you’ll need to check the labels to make sure you’re getting enough B12.

If you’re on a vegan diet, you may need to take a B12 supplement. Check with your doctor or an accredited dietitian #nutrition #vegan Click To Tweet

5. Zinc

Zinc is essential for your metabolism and immune system. Our bodies don’t store zinc, so you need to make sure you get enough from your diet each day. 

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia says vegetarians and vegans may be at risk of zinc deficiency because plant sources of zinc contain phytate and other inhibitors of zinc absorption. 

For vegetarians and vegans, these plant-based foods are good sources of zinc:

  • Wholegrain breads and cereals
  • Rolled oats
  • Brown rice
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • Soy products 
  • Fortified breakfast cereals 

6. Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with various health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease and relief from inflammation. 

If you’re a pescatarian – a vegetarian who eats fish – you can get omega-3 from fish and seafood, especially cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring. 

If you don’t eat fish or seafood, omega-3 is in a range of other plant-based foods. Try to include omega-3-rich flaxseeds (also known as linseeds), walnuts, chia seeds, leafy green vegetables and canola oil in your diet.

Vitamin tests coming soon

We know a lot of people in our community take an active interest in tracking their health indicators, and vitamins are no exception. 

MyHealthTest is currently developing a range of vitamin tests including Vitamin D and B12.

We’ll keep you updated on these developments via our blogs, social media and e-newsletter updates.

In the meantime, if you are concerned about any dietary deficiency due to your diet, we always recommend talking to your doctor or an accredited practicing dietitian.

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