“The scientific connection between food and health has been well documented for many decades, with substantial and increasingly robust evidence showing that a healthy lifestyle—including following a healthy dietary pattern—can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases throughout all stages of the lifespan…” – The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025
There are multiple ways to follow a healthy dietary plan, from “everything in moderation” to 100% plant-based.
If you choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s not hard to keep it healthy, as long as you limit processed foods with minimal nutrients and an excess of empty calories. Even when you stick with whole, natural foods, you must pay attention to your daily nutritional needs. When food in your vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t enough, you may want to supplement with herbal extracts, vitamins, and minerals.
In this article, we’ll review your vegetarian diet options, daily recommendations for nutrients, how to get the most out of your meals, and the supplements you may want to include to maintain your health year-round.
Your Vegetarian Diet Options
There are different types of vegetarian diets, each with its own specific guidelines and restrictions. Understanding the differences between these diets can help you choose the one that best suits your lifestyle and dietary needs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This is the most common type of vegetarian diet, which includes eggs, dairy products, and plant-based foods.
- Lacto-vegetarian: This diet includes dairy products but excludes eggs and other animal-derived foods.
- Ovo-vegetarian: This diet includes eggs but excludes dairy products and other animal-derived foods.
- Pescatarian: This is a diet that includes fish along with plant-based foods. It is not technically a vegetarian diet, but it is often considered a part of the vegetarian spectrum.
- Vegan: This is a strict vegetarian diet that excludes all animal-derived foods, including eggs, dairy products, and honey. Vegans rely solely on plant-based foods for their nutrition.
- Raw vegan: This vegan diet consists of uncooked and unprocessed foods. Raw vegans consume only raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Following any of these diet options does not in itself guarantee good health. You can quickly get into trouble if you make unhealthy food choices within a vegetarian framework. For example, a diet that excludes all animal-derived foods but is high in processed foods, sugar, and refined grains may still be vegetarian, but not healthy.
How to Ensure A Healthy Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
When planning a plant-based diet, always include a wide variety of foods to ensure you're getting all the essential nutrients your body needs for health. You need the full range of the following macro and micronutrients to maintain good health. You don’t have to include all of them in one meal, but should try to get them all over the course of the day.
- Protein is a crucial nutrient that plays many important roles in the body, including building and repairing tissues, making enzymes and hormones, and supporting immune function. While it exists in every cell of your body, it can’t be stored for later use, so you need to resupply your body with it daily. Many people believe that it's difficult to get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but there are many plant-based sources of protein, including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, and whole grains. Plant-based proteins offer other vital nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which can help to support overall health.
- Unsaturated fat helps proteins function properly and maintain cell health. It also improves the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, and E. Unlike saturated and trans fats, which can contribute to heart disease and other health problems, unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and support brain function. Plant-based sources of unsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils like olive and canola oil. Consume these fats in moderation, as they are high in calories.
- Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients found in plant-based foods, alongside protein and fat. They are an important source of energy for the body and come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods like fruits, sugar, and honey, while complex carbohydrates are found in foods like whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. When you include complex carbohydrates in your meals, you not only gain important nutrients, but you also promote a feeling of fullness and reduce the risk of overeating. It's important to choose whole food sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. Processed and refined sources like white bread and sugar can have negative health impacts.
- Fiber plays many important roles in the body, including regulating digestion, promoting feelings of fullness, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Fiber is found exclusively in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Adults should consume between 25 and 38 grams of fiber daily, depending on age and gender.
- Vitamins are essential nutrients you need in small amounts to promote wellness and prevent disease. Each vitamin has a specific role in the body, such as promoting healthy immune function, supporting vision, and maintaining healthy skin. Plant-based foods are rich in vitamins, including vitamins C, A, and K, as well as a range of B vitamins.
- Minerals are involved in many bodily functions, such as building strong bones, transporting oxygen in the blood, and supporting immune function. Many plant-based foods include calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and many other important minerals.
- Phytonutrients are natural compounds found in plant-based foods that have many health-promoting properties. These include antioxidants, which help to protect cells from damage, and anti-inflammatory compounds, which can help to reduce occasional inflammation in the body.* Phytonutrients are found in many plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
To ensure your vegetarian or vegan diet meets your daily nutritional needs, refer to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 – 2025. These guidelines recommend a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods from all food groups.
According to the guidelines, a healthy daily eating pattern should include:
- 2-½ cups vegetables from all subgroups (dark green, red and orange, legumes, starchy, and other vegetables)
- 2 cups fruits, especially whole fruits
- 6 ounces of grains, at least half of which should be whole grains
- 3 cups dairy (or non-dairy substitutes)
- 5-½ ounces of protein foods, including eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products
- 27 grams of unsaturated fats
One easy way to eat nutritious meals is to use a technique called “eating the rainbow.” When your meals include a full spectrum of colors (such as red chard, yellow bell peppers, white tofu, green spinach, brown nuts, and blueberries), you maximize the nutrients on your plate.
Nutrient-Dense Versus Not Nutrient-Dense
When planning a nutrient-rich diet, select foods that are nutrient-dense and try to leave out the empty calories — those calories that aren’t good for your health. Nutrient-dense foods are those that are high in nutrients in proportion to their calories. Unlike processed and refined foods, which are often high in calories and low in nutrients, whole foods provide the body with the nourishment it needs to function optimally. While most whole foods are nutrient-dense, the way they are grown and prepared can affect their nutritional value.
For example, free-range eggs (from hens raised in a pasture) have been found to have more nutrients than eggs from caged hens, most likely because of the difference in the hens’ diets.REF#1604
Nutrient density can also be affected by the way you prepare your food. A plain baked potato is nutrient-dense, whereas french fries have a lot of added calories from fat because they are fried in oil. Air-popped corn is a more nutritious snack than corn popped with oil and covered in butter. Unsweetened applesauce (ideally homemade) gives you the nutrients of the apples, while adding processed sugar or buying processed applesauce with added sugar almost doubles the calories without adding nutrition. A cup of non-fat plain yogurt with a half cup of blueberries is nutrient-dense, whereas processed yogurt with fruit and sugar added may not be.
Since you need to limit the number of calories you eat to maintain good health, selecting foods that give you the most nutrients per calorie makes sense.
When to Supplement Your Vegetarian Diet with Additional Nutrients
While a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can provide all the necessary nutrients for optimal health, there are some nutrients that may be more difficult to obtain from plant-based sources alone. The most common nutrient deficiencies associated with a vegetarian or vegan diet include:
- Vitamin B12: This nutrient is essential for proper nerve function and the production of red blood cells. It is found primarily in animal-based foods, so you may need to supplement your vegetarian or vegan diet with vitamin B12 or consume fortified foods such as plant-based milks or breakfast cereals.
- Iron: While plant-based foods contain iron, it is not as readily absorbed as the iron found in animal-based foods. You can increase your iron intake by consuming iron-rich plant foods such as leafy greens, beans, and fortified cereals, or by cooking with cast-iron cookware, which may transfer a small amount of iron into your food. REF#1605
- Calcium: This mineral is important for building and maintaining strong bones. While dairy products are a common source of calcium, there are many plant-based sources as well, including leafy greens, tofu, fortified plant-based milks, and almonds.
- Vitamin D: This vitamin is also important for bone health and is often added to cow’s milk. You may be able to find it as an additive in soy or rice milk or some cereals. Or simply spend more time out in the sun (wearing sunscreen, of course).
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These healthy fats are important for brain function and heart health. While they are found primarily in fatty fish, you can obtain them from plant-based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
- Iodine: This mineral is critical for thyroid function, helping regulate your metabolism and affecting muscle growth. It’s especially critical for pregnancy and breastfeeding. Seaweed is a good source of iodine if you don’t eat seafood or dairy (other good sources of iodine) or use iodized salt.
If you feel you are deficient in any of these nutrients, you should talk to your healthcare provider about testing your nutrient levels and/or taking vitamin or mineral supplements.
Herbs to Add to Your Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
Herbal supplements can also provide a wide range of phytonutrients that can support overall good health. If you feel you’re eating a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet but want a little extra support, mushrooms offer a wealth of benefits that support your immune system, provide stamina and stress support, and may even support brain health.* Here are few options to consider:
- Reishi Mushroom: This adaptogenic Reishi tonic may help you maintain a healthy immune system, support heart health, and help your body cope with stress in a healthy way.*
- Immune Mushroom Blend: A combination of five potent immune-supporting mushrooms—Reishi, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, Shiitake, and Chaga—may help support your immune system and well-being year-round.*
- Lion’s Maine Mushroom: This organically grown and sustainably sourced mushroom supplement has become popular to help support mental performance, cognition, focus, and a healthy nervous system. However, the scientific evidence in support of its use is still in its infancy and more studies are necessary to confirm this potential benefit *
Gaia Herbs also offers a wide selection of herbs to support different health issues, from respiratory and digestive health to libido and memory issues. Take the Matchmaker Quiz to discover what herbal supplements might be the right addition to your vegetarian or vegan diet.
- 1. Cheryl Long And Tabitha Alterman, "Are Real Free Range Eggs Better?", Mother Earth News. https://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/free-range-eggs-zmaz07onzgoe 1 1. Cheryl Long And Tabitha Alterman, "Are Real Free Range Eggs Better?", Mother Earth News. https://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/free-range-eggs-zmaz07onzgoe
- 2. Clark Alves et al, "Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review", PLOS ONE, September 3, 2019. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221094 2 2. Clark Alves et al, "Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review", PLOS ONE, September 3, 2019. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221094