Vegetarian Shopping at Whole Foods Market
The produce aisle and bulk bins are a wonderland for vegetarian shoppers. In fact, in just those two sections of the store, you can find almost everything you need to follow the Four Pillars of Healthy Eating. From leafy greens, bright peppers and colorful root vegetables to whole grains, nuts and dried beans, we have almost all you need to put together a phytonutrient-rich, plant-strong diet.
Have questions about how to put together the healthiest vegetarian diet? Many of our stores have Healthy Eating Specialists, who can suggest healthy recipes, help with good-for-you meal plans and more. And you can always find products marked with our Health Starts Here® logo in any store. That's our guide to – and your guarantee of – the healthiest food choices.
Vegetarian-Specific Nutritional Requirements
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases" through all stages of life, from pregnancy to infancy, and through childhood and adolescence.
The key here is "appropriately planned." Its true: Potato chips, white rice and mac and cheese are vegetarian, but if these and other refined foods make up the majority of your diet, you won't get the nutrients you need. Even if you eat nothing but the healthiest vegetarian foods, you still need to be careful that you're getting enough nutrients and calories – and in the proper balance. For instance, fiber (plentiful in plant-based foods) is beneficial, but too much of it can interfere with mineral absorption.
So how do you achieve a nutritionally adequate, optimally healthful vegetarian diet? With careful planning and forethought. Use the info below as a guide to getting adequate nutrients, but always be sure to consult your doctor or nutritionist for advice.
Best Protein Sources
- Soy products such as tempeh, tofu, and soy-based meat substitutes
Most people require about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 58 grams of protein per day for a 160-pound adult. Vegetarians and vegans may need to eat 10–20% more protein than recommended in order to compensate for the lower digestibility of plant-based protein.
(Find more in our article, Top Sources of Vegetarian Protein.)
Best Iron Sources
- Legumes (especially chickpeas, adzuki beans, lentils and kidney beans)
- Nuts & seeds (most notably cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds & tahini)
- Whole and enriched grains such as quinoa
- Vegetables (particularly dark and leafy greens)
- Dried fruits
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of iron for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for non-vegans: 27mg. versus 15mg. This is because iron from plant foods is not as available to the body as iron from animal sources. Although iron intake and stores are usually adequate in vegetarians and vegans, young and pregnant women and athletes should pay special attention to make sure their needs are met.
Essential Fatty Acids
Best Essential Fatty Acid Sources
- Microalgae DHA supplements
- Flaxseed oil
- Hempseed oil
- Chia seeds
Essential fatty acids are aptly named because they are truly essential to health. Since the body does not manufacture them, they must be obtained from the diet. Omega-3's are one class of essential fatty acids that are important for maintaining cell membranes, including those of the brain and eyes, and for regulating bodily processes.
** To achieve a balanced Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio, decrease intake of certain vegetable oils including corn, soy and grapeseed oils. **
Best Vitamin B12 Sources
- B12-fortified foods, including fortified meat substitutes, cereals & non-dairy milk beverages
- Nutritional yeast
- B12 supplements
It is challenging to maintain adequate levels of vitamin B12 on a primarily plant-based diet. Because low levels of this vitamin increase disease risk and can negate the positive cardiovascular effects of a vegetarian or vegan diet, supplementation with vitamin B12 is strongly recommended. This is especially true for pregnant and lactating women for whom optimum vitamin B12 intake is crucial.
Best Calcium Sources
- Low-oxylate greens such as broccoli, kale, collards, okra and Chinese greens
- Soy beverages
- Sesame seeds
- Dried figs
- Other calcium-fortified foods
Calcium is essential for overall body health, helping to ensure proper muscle and nerve function as well as strong bones and teeth. Vegetarians and vegans are most likely to have calcium levels lower than the general population along with the lower bone density that implies. (Inadequate dietary protein can also contribute to low bone density.)
Calcium levels can be negatively affected by other dietary factors such as high sodium consumption, too much or too little protein, caffeine and soft drinks with phosphoric acid, so be sure to be aware of these, as well.
Best Vitamin D Sources
- Moderate warm-month sun
- Fortified soy beverages
- Fortified cereals
If you're a vegetarian or vegan who spends a lot of time indoors or live in a northern clime, chances are you have less-than-optimal vitamin D levels. Sufficient vitamin D can be produced by exposure to the sun during warm months: 10–15 minutes on face and forearms for people with fairer complexion or 30 minutes to 3 hours for people with darker complexions. During cold months, you will likely have to depend on fortified foods or supplements.
Best Zinc Sources
- Legumes (especially adzuki and navy beans and split peas)
- Nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and cashews)
- Whole grains and wheat germ
Plant foods tend to be lower in zinc concentrations than animal foods. In addition, the bioavailability of plant-based zinc is lower than from animal products. Marginal deficiencies in zinc may be common in vegetarians, especially if they consume a lot of wheat bran and soy, as well as tea, chocolate and coffee. (These foods are high in phytates, which interfere with zinc absorption.)
Increase the bioavailability of zinc by soaking and sprouting grains, seeds, nuts and legumes, by leavening breads with yeast and sourdough and by fermenting foods.
Best Iodine Sources
- Iodized salt
- Kelp powder (The upper limit for iodine is 1100 mcg. Because seaweeds contain high amounts of iodine, be careful not to consume excessive amounts.)
Iodine is an essential mineral required for good thyroid function. Too little or too much iodine in the diet can lead to hypothyroidism, a precursor to disease. Vegetarians and vegans generally consume less iodine than the general population, but this varies depending on their intake of supplements, iodized salt, and seaweeds. Vegetarians and vegans who do not consume iodized salt may be at risk for iodine deficiency.
Animal-derived ingredients abound in supplements, and vegetarians must be alert to avoid them. The best way to make sure you're not ingesting animal products along with your supplements is to become an avid label reader and consult the knowledgeable Team Members in our Whole Body department. Here are some things to look out for:
- Gelatin, derived from cattle and pigs, is the most pervasive animal product in nutritional supplements. Beware of capsule and softgel products that do not have "vegi-caps" or plant-derived sources on the label.
- Beta-carotene, though vegetarian sourced, is often coated in gelatin for stabilization purposes.
- L-Tyrosine is typically derived from poultry feathers.
- Glucosamine Sulfate is usually derived from shellfish, although a new vegetarian source is now being tested for efficacy and stability.
- Chondroitin Sulfate is derived from cattle.
- Vitamin D3 (as cholecalciferol) is usually derived from lanolin (sheep's wool), animal hides or fish oil. D2, a synthetic version, is not as bioavailable as D3.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, is derived from seaweed but normally packaged in gelatin softgels. Finding a vegetarian or vegan form may require some effort.
Some of the above products have vegetarian-friendly alternatives but they are not as widely available because they cost more to produce. Many quality supplements sold at conscientious health or natural food stores announce their vegetarian or vegan status on the label. If it doesn't say it on the label, you can assume that it is not veggie friendly.
To educate yourself further about specific products, ask a Whole Body Team Member for the manufacturer's contact information. Asking questions helps companies understand the importance of this issue.
Whole Foods Market is committed to carrying the highest quality nutritional supplements available. We strive to offer vegetarian-derived products whenever possible and to ensure that all products are labeled accurately.