6 Essential nutrients for vegetarians: Meeting your needs on a plant-based diet

  • 3 Minutes Read
Sue Heikkinen
Sue Heikkinen, MS, RDN, CDCES, BC-ADM, ACE-PT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

Thinking about a vegetarian diet? Here are the six most important nutrients for vegetarians and the supplements you might need.

Nutrients for vegans

Vegetarian diets have a well-deserved reputation for good health, but you may wonder if you are meeting your nutrition needs. While loaded with many nutrients, plant-based diets may fall short on nutrients found primarily in animal-sourced foods. In some cases, you may need a supplement.

Here are the top 6 nutrients for vegetarians to consider

1. Vitamin B12

Why is it important?

Vitamin B12 is critical for your health, playing a role in everything from red blood cell formation to nerve and brain function. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal-based foods. It's essential to find reliable sources if you are a vegetarian or a vegan.

How much do I need per day?

Men and women 14 years and older: 2.4 mcg

Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12:

Do I need a vitamin B12 supplement?

If you regularly eat dairy foods and eggs, you are likely to get enough vitamin B12.

If you don't consume vitamin B12-fortified foods, you risk a deficiency and should take a vitamin B12 supplement. Ask your doctor if you should have your vitamin B12 levels monitored.

2. Iron

You need iron to make the oxygen-carrying part of red blood cells. Iron deficiency is a common cause of anemia.

How much do I need per day?

Typically, people need the amounts shown below. However, the suggested RDA for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than the list shown due to decreased iron absorption from plant sources.
Men 14-18 years: 11 mg
Men 19-50 years: 8 mg
Women 14-18 years: 15 mg
Women 19-50 years: 18 mg
Men and Women 51 years and older: 8 mg

To help absorb iron, eat foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, strawberries, and peppers, along with iron sources.

Vegetarian sources of iron include:

Do I need an iron supplement?

It depends on your risk for iron deficiency. Older adults typically don’t need extra iron. Women of childbearing age have a higher risk of iron deficiency and may need supplements. Ask your doctor if you should have your iron level tested. Don’t take a supplement unless you are advised to, as too much iron can be a health risk.

3. Calcium

Why is it important?

Calcium is a mineral found in the greatest amounts in the body. It provides bone structure and is essential for muscle and nerve function.

How much do I need per day?

Men 19-70 years: 1000 mg
Men 71 years and older: 1200 mg
Women 19-50 years: 1000 mg
Women 51 years and older: 1200 mg

Vegetarian sources of calcium include:

Do I need a calcium supplement?

If you regularly eat dairy products, calcium-fortified foods, or high-calcium plant foods, you may be getting enough calcium. You may need a supplement if you consume fewer than three servings of high-calcium foods daily.
If you avoid dairy or calcium-fortified foods, consider a supplement. Plant-based calcium sources come with other essential nutrients, such as vitamin K and magnesium.

4. Vitamin D

Why is it important?

Vitamin D and calcium go hand-in-hand. Vitamin D helps calcium absorption and plays a role in immune health and hormone production.

How much do I need per day?

Men and women 19-70 years: 15 mcg (600 IU)
Men and women 70 years and older: 20 mcg (800 IU)

Note: There is debate about optimal vitamin D intake and blood levels. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have questions about your specific needs.

Vegetarian sources of vitamin D include:

Do I need a vitamin D supplement?

Perhaps. It is unlikely that vegetarians and non-vegetarians get adequate vitamin D from their diets, even if they consume fortified foods. Take vitamin D supplements with a meal that includes fat for better absorption of this fat-soluble vitamin.

5. Zinc

Why is it important?

Zinc is vital for immune function and wound healing. Because we don’t store zinc well in our bodies, daily consumption of high zinc foods is important.

How much do I need per day?

Men 14 and older: 11 mg
Women 14-18 years: 9 mg
Women 19 years and older: 8 mg

Vegetarian sources of zinc include:

Do I need a zinc supplement?

It's possible to get enough zinc from plant foods if you have a well-balanced diet. Many multivitamins contain zinc. Do not take more than the upper limit of 40 mg of zinc per day.

6. Omega-3 fatty acids

Why are they important?

Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce inflammation and lower your risk of heart disease. They are needed for cell membrane formation and are helpful for immune function and brain health.

The main omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic (ALA) acid. DHA and EPA are the active forms of omega-3 and come from fish and seafood sources. ALA comes from plant sources and is converted to DHA and EPA by the body only in small amounts.

How much do I need per day?

There is no established guideline for DHA and EPA intake.

The daily guidelines for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are:
Men 14 years and older: 1.6 g
Women 14 years and older: 1.1 g

Vegetarian sources of omega-3s (from ALA) include:

Do I need an omega-3 supplement?

Taking a supplement is a reasonable way to boost your omega-3s. Most omega-3 supplements are from fish sources. Fortunately, algae-sourced DHA and EPA supplements are becoming more available.

Tracking nutrients with MyNetDiary

Want to make sure you are getting the essential nutrients for your vegetarian diet? MyNetDiary Premium will allow you to customize your reports for over 100 nutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. You can also include contributions from vitamins and supplements.

Resources for more information

See vitamin recommendations for all populations here.

See mineral recommendations for all populations here.

Vegetarian Resource Group

Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Adopted from original content by Donna P. Feldman, MS, RDN
Reviewed and updated by Brenda Braslow, MS, RDN, CDCES on September 11, 2023.

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Sep 15, 2023
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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