Going meatless even a few days a week may be a healthier option for you and for our planet. If you are limiting your intake of meat, make sure you're getting enough of these eight key nutrients to help you maintain a balanced diet.
Calcium helps build bone and teeth, and also helps nerve cells transmit messages and muscles contract. Dairy foods are the biggest source of calcium, while vegetables like bok choy, broccoli and kale are also good sources, as are tofu set with calcium and fortified soymilk.
Iodine is needed for metabolizing food into energy, as well as normal thyroid function. Since iodine is found primarily in seafood, many vegetarians don't get enough of it. But good vegetarian sources of iodine include iodized salt and kelp.
The body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. If you're mostly meatless but occasionally eat meat and poultry, red meat and dark meat in chicken are some of the best sources of easily absorbed iron. Iron is also found in some plant foods. Iron from plant sources—dried fruits, legumes, seeds, vegetables and whole grains—is less readily absorbed, especially when we eat these foods with tea, coffee or cocoa (they have compounds that bind the mineral). Thus, recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times that of nonvegetarians. Consuming vitamin C with iron-rich foods markedly helps its absorption.
DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids, are important for eye and brain development, as well as heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are found mainly in fatty fish like salmon, though they can be made by the body in small amounts from ALA, another type of omega-3 that’s found in plants like flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soy. A variety of foods, including soymilks and breakfast bars, are now fortified with DHA. Supplements of DHA/EPA made from algae are available.
Every cell in our body contains protein, and we need it to repair cells, build tissue, grow hair, nails and bone. Protein is found in almost every food we eat. Eating a variety of plant foods every day, including protein-rich soybeans, beans, whole grains, seeds and nuts (as well as vegetables, to a lesser degree), provides all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that we need.
Vitamin B12 helps make red blood cells and DNA, and is required for proper neurological function. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods, but is added to fortified foods, such as soymilks and breakfast cereals. A supplement is recommended for vegetarians, especially since the body is less able to absorb B12 as we age.
Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, is important for bone health; it also plays a role in the nervous, muscular and immune systems. The body makes vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight, but northern climates don’t get enough sun year-round for adequate formation. Foods like cow’s milk and soymilk are fortified with D. Some mushrooms that have been exposed to UV?light are also good sources.
Zinc is important for a properly functioning immune system plus cell growth and division, among other things. Although plentiful in beef, pork and lamb, you can also find it in soy products, peanuts and legumes, though bioavailability of zinc from plant sources is lower than from animal sources.