A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but care needs to be taken to achieve a well balanced diet to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients.

In a previous article I looked at how to choose from each of the four food groups if you are following a vegetarian eating plan. The importance of getting protein from alternative plant sources such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds was discussed.

In this article I will look at some other important nutrients in a little more detail.

B Vitamins

The vegetarian diet can be lacking in B vitamins – especially Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and Vitamin B12.

In the New Zealand diet milk and meats are our major dietary contributors of vitamin B2. We need riboflavin for the production of energy from carbohydrate, protein and fat in our diet. If dairy is excluded from the vegetarian diet then other important sources of Vitamin B2 are bread, cereals, dried beans, nuts and seeds.

A vegetarian diet that regularly includes either eggs or dairy products should not be deficient in Vitamin B12. In some cases it may be necessary to take supplements of vitamin B12.

Calcium for the vegetarian diet

Calcium is important for bone health. Normally our best dietary source of calcium is dairy products, so if you are still including dairy products calcium may not be such a concern as long as you are having the recommended 2-3 servings of dairy per day. Don’t forget that the low fat milks are higher in calcium than the full fat milks.

If you are avoiding dairy products alternative sources of calcium include soy milks which have calcium added, nuts, seeds, pulses, (eg soy beans, tofu, miso-fermented soy bean curd, haricot beans), grains, and dried figs.

Iron in the Vegetarian diet

Red meat is considered the best source of iron as the iron in red meat (haem-iron) is easily absorbed and utilised by the body.

The iron which is found in plant based foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron found in red meat, chicken or fish. Including a food which is high in Vitamin C at the same meal will assist plant based iron to be absorbed more efficiently. This can be achieved by including one of the following at meal times: fruit juice, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh fruit, dried fruit.

The recommended daily intake of iron for non-vegetarian men aged 19 years and older is 8 mg per day and for women 19 – 50 years it is 18mg per day. It is recommended that vegetarians will need to aim for an intake that is up to 80% higher than that recommended for non-vegetarians due to the lower absorption of iron from plant based foods.

A high intake of tea may interfere with the absorption of iron due to the tannins in the tea.

If you have any concerns about your iron levels get a blood test before you start taking any supplements.

Some examples of the iron content of plant based foods are:

Breads, cereals, and grains
Whole wheat/rye bread (1 slice)
Oatmeal raw (1 cup)
Wheat germ (2 Tbsp)
Cereal fortified (1/2 cup)
Vegetables (1/2 cup cooked)
Legumes (1/2 cup cooked)
Baked beans
Lentils, red
Chick peas
Tofu (½ cup)
Soymilk, fortified (1 cup)
Nuts and Seeds (2 Tbsp)
Pumpkin Seeds
Sunflower seeds

Sources of essential fatty acids in a vegetarian diet

Two polyunsaturated fatty acids not made by the body are linoleic acid (omega 6 group) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3 group), so we therefore have to get them from the food we eat.

Eating enough Omega 6 is relatively easy for vegetarians to get from their food choices as it comes from nuts and seeds.

Omega 3 can be more difficult to get from a vegetarian diet as this commonly comes from fish oils, seafood and lean red meats. However walnuts, walnut oil, flaxseed (linseed), flaxseed oil, soyabean oil and canola oil are useful sources of omega-3 for vegetarians.

The Omega fatty acids are important in all the cells in our body. There is growing evidence to show they have a role in protecting against heart disease, cancer, the immune system, and maybe mood. If your intake of Omega 6 is too high it will compete with Omega 3, therefore try to keep your Omega 3 intake up (but do not exclude the Omega 6 group).

In summary a vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but care needs to be taken to ensure that it is well balanced to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients.

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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Hi – I moved to New Zealand about 9 years ago from the US. Since then I developed a b12 deficiency and had to take shots ( I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian). The shots have gotten my levels up again but I would like to maintain it with fortified cereals. Could you tell me what cereals in New Zealand have b12? Thank you. C. Bell

Rochelle Gribble

Hi CBwriter,

I’ve just done a bit of a check and have also amended our material slightly, as in New Zealand, cereal makers are not actually allowed to add B12 into their cereal. There’s quite a good list of foods with B12 here: http://www.nutritionfoundation.org.nz/nutrition-facts/vitamins/b-vitamins

Hope it’s helpful!


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