The benefits of plant-based eating have been getting a lot of attention these days—and not just because it’s getting harder to find good cuts of meat at the grocery store. Eating a plant-forward diet has been linked to all sorts of healthy benefits, including heart health, healthy weight management, lowering the risk of cancer, and improving gut health.
There’s one big caveat: In order to reap these benefits, you have to make sure you’re still getting all the nutrients your body needs to thrive. According to Well+Good Council member and registered dietitian McKel Kooienga, RD, there are six key nutrients for vegetarians and vegans that must be prioritized in a plant-based diet, because they can sometimes be overlooked when animal produced are out of the equation. She recently shared the run-down on Instagram:
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Inspired (and shook), we asked her to dive a bit more to give us the deets on what plant-based eaters should know about these six key nutrients.
6 nutrients for vegetarians and vegans to prioritize on a plant-based diet
“You need protein for everyday living. It helps maintain bone, skin, and muscles,” Kooienga says. (Women should aim to get an average of 75 grams a day.) Some plant-based sources that will help you get there, according to Kooienga: lentils, seeds, tempeh, tofu, nuts, and beans.
Iron is another one of the nutrients for vegetarians to prioritize because meat can often be a big source of it. “Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body. The tricky thing about this nutrient in plant-based eating is that it’s sometimes hard to absorb, and some foods can actually block your body’s absorption,” Kooienga says. She advises coupling iron-rich food sources such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, and green veggies with foods high in calcium, to ensure they are well-absorbed. Aim for 18 milligrams of iron a day.
Zinc helps with muscle repair and also keeps the immune system strong, but if you don’t get the needed 11 milligrams a day, your body isn’t getting enough. Kooienga says baked beans, cashews, chickpeas, oatmeal, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all good plant-based sources of the nutrient and easy ones to work into meals throughout the day.
Not only does calcium help with iron-absorption, Kooienga says it’s also important for bone health, muscle function, and nerve and cell signaling. The goal should be to get 1,300 milligrams a day. “You probably remember hearing that you need to drink your milk for calcium, but you can still get calcium from veggie-forward foods,” she says, calling out collard greens, bok choy, tahini, broccoli, and kale as particularly good sources.
5. vitamin b12
“Vitamin B12 is important for producing DNA, and is essential for red blood cell formation and cell metabolism,” Kooienga says. “However one study found that half of all vegans are vitamin B12 deficient.” In order to reach the 2.4 micrograms needed daily, use fortified nut milk, nutritional yeast, and supplements, when needed, since it’s very tough otherwise to come by in plant-based products.
6. vitamin d
Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption and also plays a role in immune and gut health, Kooienga says. “About 50 percent of the population has a vitamin D deficiency, so it’s crucial to pay attention to how much you’re getting,” she adds. It’s recommended to get 20 micrograms of vitamin D a day, and Kooeinga says fortified nut milk and supplements can play a role in getting there—especially if you’re spending most of your time inside.
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