If you’ve decided to go meat-free, especially if you’re ditching dairy on top of that, getting certain key nutrients—from iron to calcium—can be a real challenge. The good news: You can eat a plant-based diet and get all of the important nutrients you need to stay healthy and beautiful.
“A nutritionally balanced diet is possible without meat or animal foods,” says Kristine Duncan, a registered dietitian in Washington and author of The Veg Girl RD blog. “You just have to expand your food horizons beyond the standard burgers and convenience foods and include more whole foods.”
Here are five key nutrients that vegetarians and vegans should pay special attention to since they’re a bit harder to consume when you’re forgoing meat and/or dairy, along with the best plant-based sources of these nutrients—plus, delicious recipes so you can easily incorporate them into your daily diet. Now that’s a beautiful thing.
The mineral is crucial for a healthy immune system, according to Virginia Messina, R.D., co-author of “Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet.” Getting too little iron can leave you feeling (and looking!) tired.
How to get it: Add more beans and whole grains to your diet. And eat plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus, broccoli and cabbage, to boost your body’s absorption of iron.
2Try this recipe:
Adzuki Bean Potato Salad
This salad is packed with iron from the adzuki beans. The potato, green pepper and lime juice all add vitamin C to work with the beans and increase iron availability.
1 medium red potato
2 ½ cups adzuki beans
1 teaspoon white miso
2 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise
¼ cup diced green pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Steam the potato in a microwave and dice once cool. Shred the carrots and scallions in a food processor or chop by hand. Mix potato, carrots, scallions and the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.
How to get it: Load up on leafy greens like kale, collards and turnip greens, almonds, broccoli, tofu, almond butter and calcium-fortified juices.
4Try this recipe:
Creamy Kale Miso Soup
Kale and tofu both contribute calcium to this soup, which comes together in minutes.
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup coarsely diced yellow onion
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh garlic
1 14-ounce package soft (not silken) tofu, pressed and drained
4 cups kale, loosely packed
¼ cup yellow miso
Bring vegetable stock, onions and garlic to a boil in a large saucepan. Cube the pressed tofu, add it to the saucepan and bring back to a boil. Add kale (torn into large pieces), stir, cover and simmer on low for five minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in miso. (It’s okay if it doesn’t all dissolve.) Transfer soup from the saucepan to a blender, cover tightly and blend for 30 seconds to a minute, 3 cups at a time (or to the half-full point of your blender). If you have an immersion blender, blend in the pot and cover with a dishtowel to prevent hot splatters. Spoon into a bowl and garnish with a few pieces of raw kale.
Protein helps keep hair follicles strong, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of “The Flexitarian Diet.”
How to get it: Fill your diet with protein-packed beans, nuts and lentils.
6Try this recipe:
Bursting with 11 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber per serving, this meatless dinner dish will keep you satisfied.
Ingredients (makes 4 servings)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8-ounce package sliced mushrooms
8 cups pre-cleaned baby spinach (2 cups for meatballs and 6 cups for pasta)
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 can (15 ounces) lentils, drained, rinsed
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
6 ounces uncooked quinoa pasta, cooked
2 cups jarred marinara sauce, warmed
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a hot skillet, sauté oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, mushrooms and 2 cups of spinach for about six minutes or until most of the water is released from the mushrooms and spinach. Season with salt and pepper. Then blot mixture dry with a paper towel. In a food processor, pulse rolled oats until they are a course flour consistency. Set aside. In the food processor (no need to wash the bowl from remaining oat dust), pulse cooked mushroom-spinach mixture with a half can of lentils. Note: Mixture should have texture—do not puree smooth. Stir in flaxseeds. Add oats gradually until mixture holds together into a dough. Shape dough into 24 tablespoon-sized meatballs, place on baking sheet, mist with cooking spray and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until browned. Serve meatballs on cooked pasta tossed with warm marinara and remaining baby spinach.
Recipe created by Dawn Jackson Blatner
The mineral is key for cell structure and helps you maintain healthy skin, says Sharon Palmer, R.D., author of “The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today.”
How to get it:
Add cashews, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds to salads or eat them separately as a snack. You can also find zinc in wheat germ, barley, pinto beans, corn and peanuts.
8Try this recipe:
Crunchy Cherry Sunflower Seed Wrap
Get a zinc boost from the sunflower seeds—and an extra calcium kick from the almond butter—in this crunchy wrap.
Ingredients (makes 2 wraps)
Two 8-inch whole grain tortillas or wraps
2 tablespoons almond butter
2/3 cup micro-greens (young, tender greens)
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons dried cherries
Spread 1 tablespoon almond butter evenly over each tortilla. Sprinkle 1/3 cup micro-greens evenly over the almond butter, then sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds, 1 tablespoon raisins and 1 tablespoon dried cherries. Tightly roll up each tortilla then slice in half. Serve immediately or wrap in plastic to prevent the wrap from drying out.
Recipe created by Sharon Palmer
The vitamin works together with calcium to strengthen nails, notes Blatner. And vitamin D is important for immune function, helping you ward off getting sick.
How to get it:
Try vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms—mushrooms can make vitamin D just like humans can, according to Palmer—as well as vitamin D-fortified milk (if you eat dairy) and fortified orange juice.
10Try this recipe:
Mushroom Risotto With Walnuts
This vegan recipe uses mushrooms (look for vitamin D-rich on the label when you’re at the grocery store) to create this nutty, comfort food dish.
Ingredients (makes 4 1-cup servings)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sliced summer squash (zucchini, yellow or crookneck)
1 cup sliced leeks, green and white sections
2 cups sliced brown mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup uncooked steel cut oats
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup packed chopped fresh basil
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the squash, leeks, mushrooms, garlic and black pepper and sauté for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the broth and wine in a small saucepan over medium heat until warm but not boiling. Stir the oats and walnuts into the vegetable mixture. Ladle about 1/2 cup of the warm broth mixture over the vegetable mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the liquid is absorbed. Add another 1/2 cup broth mixture and continue cooking, stirring and adding more warm broth until all the broth has been incorporated and the risotto is creamy and just tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the fresh basil and serve immediately.
Recipe created by Sharon Palmer