A vegetarian diet comes with its set of health benefits—it’s low in saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, and high in fibre. Consuming higher amounts (at least five portions) of vegetables and fruits may lower the risk of death from all causes, particularly cardiovascular diseases, says a study published in 2014 in the British Medical Journal.
It’s also true, however, that a vegetarian diet can leave you short of specific nutrients—unless you’re particular about it. “Enough has been written about how being a vegetarian can short-change a person’s protein intake. Most people already know that as vegetarian sources tend to be incomplete protein sources (some essential amino acids are missing), one needs to compensate and adjust by pairing them right. But for a strict vegetarian, besides protein, a few other essential nutrients might be missing too, which can lead to deficiency-related health issues in the long run,” says Honey Tandon, chief dietitian at the Columbia Asia Hospital in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi.
If you are a vegetarian and concerned about missing out on essential vitamins, amino acids and minerals, read on.
Iron is required to make haemoglobin and its deficiency may lead to anaemia. Plus, our immune system is dependent on it for smooth functioning.
Get enough: Since most good sources of iron are non-vegetarian—chicken, eggs, sardines—it is hard for vegetarians to get adequate iron. The issue is compounded by the fact that the body does not absorb iron from plant foods as well as it does from meats. To get iron from plants, you need to consume a larger amount of vegetarian products. Sprouts, beans, seeds (sesame, sunflower and pumpkin), mushrooms, iron-fortified cereals and nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts) are good sources.
To improve iron absorption, consume enough vitamin C alongside. Ideally, pair them together: Add lime juice to pomegranate juice, add orange along with seeds and nuts to your salad. Have more broccoli and potatoes (they contain both vitamin C and iron), suggests Tandon.
This vitamin is crucial for the formation of red blood cells, and for brain function. Short-term deficiency can lead to body ache, weakness, fatigue, a fuzzy brain; long-term deficiency is associated with impaired brain function, the onset of Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Get enough: Vitamin B12 is virtually non-existent in vegetarian foods. Some processed foods like soy products, breakfast cereals and breads are enriched with vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast (deactivated yeast) is a good vegetarian source of all B vitamins (and protein too). You can put it in smoothies, or sprinkle it over pasta. Or incorporate (and develop a taste for) Nori seaweed (look for it in Korean and Japanese speciality shops) in your diet. You can add it to salads, sauté with vegetables or simply crumble it in soups. If the deficiency is severe, a supplement may be advisable, says Usha Sisodia, head dietitian, Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai.
Zinc is needed to heal wounds, strengthen the immune system and repair damaged DNA. It also maintains the sense of taste and smell. Its deficiency usually shows up as lack of appetite, a decline in libido, hair loss, chronic diarrhoea; long-term deficiency may even lead to symptoms of depression.
Get enough: Food items like leavened wholegrains (such as wholewheat bread), beans, lentils, soy foods and dairy products are good sources. To boost requirement, eat cashew nuts (they contain about twice as much iron and zinc as almost any other nut) and peanuts every day, and sprinkle pumpkin seeds or wheatgerm (two of the most concentrated vegetarian food sources of zinc) on cereal, soup or salad, says Tandon.
This vitamin is needed for eye health, the manufacturing and functioning of thyroid hormones, cell growth, and for maintaining good skin. Its deficiency usually shows up as suppressed immune function, dry hair and skin (and often acne), insomnia, fatigue and unexplained weight loss.
Get enough: To get enough vitamin A, consume bright orange vegetables and fruits (carrots, yams, squash, apricots) and dark green ones (spinach, kale, chard). But ensure you have these in much larger quantities to get enough, says Kanchan Patwardhan, clinical nutritionist, Arogya Hospital, Mumbai.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain development. Low levels can adversely affect cognitive function. Plus, these have anti-ageing properties and help clean up free radicals, which are responsible for various illnesses, from cardiovascular disease to cancer.
Get enough: Fish eaters manage to consume enough of this antioxidant but vegetarians, unless they are conscious, might miss out on it completely. Include at least seven walnuts and 1 tbsp of flaxseed in your daily diet to get enough omega-3, says Sisodia.
Creatine, an organic acid, is used by muscle cells as an energy source during exercise. It helps increase muscle mass and endurance.
Get enough: Creatine is found in meat and fish. A vegetarian diet usually results in lower levels of creatine. This acid can be synthesized by the liver, kidneys and pancreas from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. Vegetarians must try and get enough of these three. Foods rich in arginine are peanut, walnut, coconut, soybean, chickpea and oats. Foods rich in glycine are raw seaweed or spirulina (blue-green algae), raw watercress, spinach and sesame seeds. Brazil nuts, oats and sunflower seeds are good sources of methionine, says Sisodia.
This amino acid can help prevent a range of diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Get enough: A study published in 2007 in the FASEB journal showed that vegetarians have less carnosine in muscle tissue compared to non-vegetarians. Since it is found only in animal foods, one needs to consume foods that can help produce amino acids histidine and beta-alanine, from which the body makes carnosine. Apples are rich in histidine, so are dairy products and grains like rice, wheat and rye. Also, zero in on corn, mushrooms, bananas, spinach and citrus fruits. Use a lot of garlic too in your cooking. For beta-alanine, try including soy flour in your daily diet. Or have other soy products like soy milk and soybean, says Tandon.