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Getting vitamins and minerals from plant-based foods requires planning. Here are some tips.

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Feeling exhausted and don’t know why? If you’re getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, it could be your diet causing that unexplained fatigue, especially if you follow a vegetarian diet.

Well-balanced vegetarian diets provide numerous health benefits. They may reduce your risk of some chronic diseases and support weight loss. But certain nutrients derived primarily from meat, fish and poultry may be lacking in vegetarian diets. This can cause issues such as fatigue, weakness, irritability, digestive problems and lack of appetite, among others.

Here are some nutrient deficiencies to watch out for—along with tips to help you get enough of what your body needs if you only eat plant-based foods.

Iron

Low iron (anemia) is the most common nutritional deficiency in the U.S. Along with causing fatigue, iron deficiency may affect everything from brain function to the immune system, as well as the health of cells, skin, hair and nails.

If you don’t eat meat, it can be hard to get the iron you need. But there are a number of plant-based foods that are good sources of iron. These include:

      • Beans and lentils
      • Tofu
      • Green leafy vegetables
      • Whole grains
      • Pumpkin seeds
      • Cashews
      • Quinoa
      • Prune juice
      • Raisins
      • Fortified breakfast cereals

Consuming iron-rich foods along with those containing vitamin C helps the body better absorb iron. However, you may still need to take an iron supplement since the body doesn’t absorb the iron from plant-based foods as well as it does from meat.

Vitamin B12

Vegetarians who don’t get enough vitamin B12 in their diet may also become anemic. This vitamin only naturally occurs in animal foods. Dairy and eggs provide B12, but if you don’t eat these, look for processed foods fortified with B12, such as:

      • Fortified cereal or grain products
      • Fortified rice or soy milk
      • Some meat substitutes (check labels)
      • Nutritional yeast

Many vegetarians need to take a dietary supplement that contains B-complex vitamins.

Other Nutrients

Iron and B-12 aren’t the only nutrients that are hard to get enough of if you’re only eating plant-based foods. Here are other nutrients you may be lacking, as well as foods that can help you get more:

      • Protein: Beans are a great source of protein—just a half cup has approximately 6 to 9 grams. Other good protein sources include almonds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, extra-firm tofu, edamame, almonds and peanuts.
      • Omega-3’s: Typically found in seafood, some plant sources also contain this essential fatty acid, including walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, edamame and tofu.
      • Zinc: You’ll find this nutrient in legumes (chickpeas, lentils and beans), seeds, nuts, whole grains and dark chocolate.
      • Selenium: Brazil nuts, brown rice, sunflower seeds, baked beans, mushrooms and oatmeal all contain high amounts of this mineral.

Following a vegetarian diet can be a healthy way to eat, as long as you make sure you’re selecting foods that supply all the nutrients your body needs. If you find it difficult to get any specific vitamins or minerals, talk to a health professional about whether supplementation is right for you.


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Date Last Reviewed: January 12, 2022

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RD

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