7 Essential Nutrients to Look Out For on a Plant-Based Diet

Knowing the Differences

Eat more plants! This is a typical recommendation we make for our clients. The nice thing is that our culture has been leaning more toward a plant-forward approach. While it is not necessary for health to be completely vegetarian or even vegan, including more plant-based foods in your life can bring in some more essential nutrients to your diet! However, since plant-based diets are restrictive, they may put you at risk for a few nutrient deficiencies. Let’s talk about the types of plant-based diets, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and risks including what nutrients might be of concern on a plant-based diet.

Basics + types of plant-based diets

While dietitians don’t push for one diet over another, we make a more significant focus on the adequacy of the diet you prefer. People typically follow a plant-based diet for personal preference, ethical or religious reasons, or due to a medical condition. A few of the plant-based diets include pescatarian, lacto-/ovo-vegetarian, vegan, & flexitarian.

  • Pescatarianism focuses on excluding meat and poultry but allows fish.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism includes dairy (lacto) or eggs (ovo) while avoiding meat, fish, & poultry.
  • Veganism excludes all animal products, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, & even honey.
  • Flexitarianism is a much more flexible approach, allowing a small amount of meat and focusing on plant foods.

Benefits of a plant-based diet

Of course, we know it’s good to include more plants! A few of the benefits of plants include:

  • An increase in antioxidant/anti-inflammatory nutrients that help to protect the body
  • May decrease risk of diseases
  • Can promote better bowel movements & gut health due to increasd fiber/prebiotic intake

7 Nutrients to prioritize on a plant-based diet

While animal-based products get a bad wrap, they do contain essential nutrients & components. Taking them out puts you at risk for deficiencies. We’ve included some of the critical nutrients to consider and how you might get them.

Essential Amino Acids (aka protein)

Protein is typically the first thing people think of with a plant-based diet. Protein is made up of amino acids. We call them the “building blocks” of protein. Without all of them, a protein is not “complete”. Animal proteins are complete proteins, while most plant-based proteins are not complete and not absorbed as well as animal proteins. In other words, we need a variety of plant foods to get all the essential amino acids and pair different protein sources together, like rice & beans, salad with edamame & pumpkin seeds, peanut butter & whole-grain toast, soy yogurt, etc.

Tips:

  • Pair proteins together such as rice & beans
  • Include plant-based leucine sources (an amino acid) such as pumpkin seeds, soy products, seitan, tempeh
  • Get a wide variety of protein sources all day long and at each meal, such as legumes, nuts/seeds, soy products, dairy/eggs (if your diet includes) 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids (EPA & DHA)

Omega-3’s are sometimes a forgotten nutrient. These nutrients are found in minuscule amounts in plant foods. You’ll find the best concentrations in fish & algae. 

Tips:

  • If your diet allows, include fish at least 2 times per week (ie. salmon, tilapia, tuna, etc.)
  • If you are vegan, include algae/algae oil
  • Consider fish oil/algae oil supplementation

Vitamin B12

Since B12 is mainly found in animal foods, B12 is another commonly deficient nutrient for plant-based individuals. For those including fish, eggs, and dairy, you likely are getting enough B12. If not, consider these tips.

Tips:

  • Include fortified cereals as a snack, breakfast, or post-workout snack 
  • Use nutritional yeast in recipes
  • Include an iron supplement if you have low blood levels*

*consult with a dietitian to get the right form & a safe supplement

Iron

Iron, particularly in the better-absorbed form, heme-iron, is limited on a plant-based lifestyle. Heme iron is only found in meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. Another form, non-heme, is found in foods such as tofu, lentils, beans, and cereals. Non-heme is not as well utilized, but you can enhance absorption with a few strategies.

Tips:

  • Include fish and/or eggs if your diet allows
  • Include tofu dishes
  • Utilize fortified cereal as a snack, breakfast, or post-workout snack 
  • Include lentils & beans with tomatoes, broccoli, or spinach (vitamin C enhances non-heme iron absorption)
  • Include an iron supplement if you have low blood levels*

*consult with a dietitian to get the right form & a safe supplement

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, not only in vegetarians but also in non-vegetarians. You’ll find this nutrient in fish, eggs, and some fortified foods. 

Tips:

  • Include fish and/or eggs if your diet allows
  • Get dairy or non-dairy milk fortified with vitamin D
  • Utilized fortified cereals or orange juices with vitamin D
  • Include an iron supplement if you have low blood levels*

*consult with a dietitian to get the right form & a safe supplement

Calcium

Calcium is crucial for strong bones. It is also important for blood health, heart, and muscle function. You can find calcium most abundantly in dairy, but with good planning can be incorporated into a plant-based diet.

Tips:

  • Use tofu as a staple protein source in your meals
  • Snack on seeds such as chia, pumpkin, and hemp
  • Use fortified dairy (if lacto-vegetarian) or fortified plant-based milk products, or fortified orange juice

Zinc

Zinc is a necessary mineral that the body needs for many of its processes, including DNA/gene function, healing, growth/development, immune function, and more. Plan your meals with zinc foods in mind

Tips:

  • If your diet allows, use eggs, yogurt, and cheese on a daily basis
  • Use tofu, beans, and lentils as a staple protein source in your meals
  • Snack on nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and cashews
  • Sprinkle seeds in your meals, including sesame/tahini, pumpkin, chia, and hemp

Get your meal plan & recipe ideas

If you want to succeed on a healthy plant-based diet with a variety of nutrients, it’s crucial to plan it out. Plan it out on our personalized & adjustable meal planning app. Get this set up by meeting with one of our dietitians! A dietitian will also help decide whether you may need a supplement to help meet your nutritional needs. 

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