3 Key Nutrients for Plant-Based Eating

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We’re hearing more and more about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. We can eat a plant-based diet when the majority of our food choices come from plants. That means:

  • Grains (oats, rice, quinoa, wheat, rye, barley)
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes (dried beans and beans such as chickpeas, black beans, red beans, pinto beans, and lentils)
  • Soy foods (tofu and tempeh)
  • Nuts and seeds

We’re even seeing "meats" made from plants that somehow manage to still look and taste like meat. Think about the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, for example.

While there’s no arguing with the health benefits of eating more plants, if you’re replacing most or even all animal products with plants, it’s important to focus on three individual nutrients that are more prevalent in animal products: zinc, iron, and vitamin B12.

Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in immune function, wound healing, protein synthesis, and cellular metabolism. Zinc is required for growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Our bodies don’t have a way to store zinc, so we need zinc on a daily basis for optimum health.

Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, a red blood cell protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to each cell throughout the body. Without enough iron in our hemoglobin, we feel tired and fatigued. Iron supports muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue and is also necessary for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrition deficiency in the world. Iron is stored in the body as ferritin in the liver, spleen, muscle tissue, and bone marrow.

Vitamin B12 is required for the development, myelination, and function of the central nervous system, healthy red blood cell formation, and DNA synthesis. B12 is the only vitamin that is only naturally available in animal products. Many breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast are fortified with B12. Unlike most other vitamins, B12 is stored in substantial amounts, mainly in the liver, until it is needed by the body. If a person stops consuming B12, its take about 3 to 5 years to deplete B12 stores in the body. Over time, B12 deficiency can lead to irreversible nerve damage.

To learn how much you need of these vital nutrients, along with how to get them while following a plant-based eating pattern, visit the post Get Enough Zinc, Iron, and B12 Each Day.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC


  1. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/  accessed 1-25-22; updated 12-7-21
  2. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/  accessed 1-25-22; updated 3-30-21
  3. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Iron. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/iron/  accessed 1-25-22; 
  4. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/   accessed 1-25-22; updated 4-6-21.
  5. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Vitamin B12 Deficiency. Author:  Larry E. Johnson. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/disorders-of-nutrition/vitamins/vitamin-b12-deficiency  accessed 1-25-22; last review 11-20.
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