Did you know that one in twenty-five North Americans is vegetarian? Studies show that vegetarians have lower rates of cancer and heart disease and are leaner and live three years longer than meat eaters.

But cutting meat, fish, and fowl out of your diet means you have to be extra vigilant to get sufficient amounts of protein, omega 3, iron, and zinc to ensure your body has what it needs to heal.

I made a major mistake twenty years ago when I cut out animal products without understanding what critical nutrients I needed to stay healthy. As a result, I suffered from anemia, gut inflammation, and even low thyroid function.

It is important for vegetarians to get enough protein to create enzymes, manage cravings, and build lean muscle. To assure you get a complete complement of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), enjoy a mix of seeds, nuts, legumes, and gluten-free grains. Surprisingly, broccoli and mushrooms both have a good amount of protein in comparison to its caloric amount. But watch for food intolerances: I over consumed almonds and beans and now am intolerant to both.

An unbalanced diet that skimps on iron leaves you lethargic. Iron is critical for energy production, blood formation, and optimal immunity. The recommended iron intake for vegetarians is nearly twice that of meat eaters because plant iron is absorbed less efficiently than heme (meat) iron. Great vegetarian sources of iron include lentils, spinach, quinoa, tempeh, Lima beans, Swiss chard, and blackstrap molasses.

Strict vegetarians who avoid seafood can find themselves low in omega 3 fatty acids. Cooking oils, beans, and nuts are high in Omega 6, but unless we really focus on the ratio of essential fats, your immune system can take a hit. The vegetarian sources include flax, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts, algae, and seaweed.

Zinc is critical for balanced hormones and immunity. Whole grains and fiber contain phytates that interfere with zinc absorption. Vegetarians may need more than the 15 mg daily dosage. Major plant sources of zinc include legumes, sea vegetables, Swiss chard, wheat germ, fortified cereals, nuts, peas, and seeds.

If you choose to go vegan and cut out dairy and eggs, then B12 and calcium may also become scarce. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in meat, milk products, and eggs, so if you are vegan, it is important to consider a B12 lozenge. Spirulina, sea vegetables, and nutritional yeast do not contain adequate amounts of B12 to prevent deficiency symptoms.

Men need 500 mg of calcium and women need between 1,000 and 16,000 mg of calcium per day. Beverages like fortified soy, rice, and almond milk can supply the much-needed mineral. To up your calcium count, enjoy lots of leafy green vegetables such as turnip and collard greens, kale, and Swiss chard. Broccoli, sesame seeds, and seaweed are other healthy sources of calcium for vegans.

Being a vegetarian is a wonderful way to tread lightly on the earth and to respect our animal cousins. By being mindful to ensure your diet is nutritionally complete, you can also live a vibrant, healthy, peaceful long life.

Nutritionist Julie Daniluk RHN hosts The Healthy Gourmet on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a reality cooking show that looks at the ongoing battle between taste and nutrition. Her first bestselling book, Meals That Heal Inflammation, advises on allergy-free foods that both taste great and assist the body in the healing process. Check out more amazing recipes, nutrition tips, and her Anti-Inflammatory Quick Start Program at www.juliedaniluk.com and follow her on Facebook at Julie Daniluk Nutrition and on Twitter @juliedaniluk.

*Image courtesy of rick ligthelm.