Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Nutrients You Need
What does being a vegetarian mean?
A vegetarian diet limits or excludes consuming animal flesh or products that come from animals. But there isn’t just one vegetarian diet. Diet choices are personal, and are based on individual health needs and beliefs. Consider the following vegetarian types:
Flexitarians are not traditional vegetarians (also called semi-vegetarians). They continue to eat meat, poultry, fish and animal products in small amounts. However, if your concerns are only health-related, a flexitarian diet may help you reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. It may also help you increase the amount of grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Lacto-vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish or eggs but continue to eat dairy products, such as milk and yogurt.
Ovo-vegetarians avoid meat, poultry, fish and dairy products but do eat eggs.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry and fish. Dairy and eggs are acceptable.
Vegans avoid all animal products, which not only includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, but also animal byproducts, such as gelatin and honey.
Why do people choose to become vegetarians?
Choosing a vegetarian diet is a big decision. For most people, it means changing a lifetime of eating behaviors.
Some people choose a vegetarian diet because of health concerns, such as limiting cholesterol and saturated fat to reduce the risk of heart disease. Other people are driven by religious beliefs which ban eating certain foods. Some people choose a vegetarian diet because they have concerns about the ethics of harming and using animals, or about the way the food industry effects the environment.
Whatever the reasons, it takes time to learn new habits and replace old food choices with new, vegetarian options.
What are the possible benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Although it may be challenging, a vegetarian diet may be worth the effort. A meatless diet can lead to a healthier weight and a lower risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease. People who have type 2 diabetes may also experience improved insulin response and blood sugar control.
What are the possible drawbacks of a vegetarian diet?
A successful vegetarian diet means more than saying no to chicken and burgers. Like non-vegetarians, vegetarians must be careful to eat a balanced and nutritious variety of foods.
Although fruits and vegetables are a great source of many nutrients, not all are created equal. Some vitamins that are common in animal products are hard to get in other foods. To avoid nutritional pitfalls and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to plan your diet carefully. Make sure you get enough of the following nutrients.
Iron plays a key role in producing red blood cells, which helps your heart pump oxygen to your body. Non-animal sources of iron include beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat and tofu. Also, look for iron-fortified cereals. Because iron from plants isn’t digested as easily as iron from meat, consider eating vitamin C-rich foods which may help your body absorb the iron. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, guava, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower.
Calcium builds strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. For many people, dairy products like milk and yogurt are the primary source of calcium. For a vegan diet, good sources of calcium include soybeans, almonds or dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens and bok choy. Fortified soymilk, juices and calcium supplements are also options.
Protein is an important element in almost every part of your body– from muscles to skin. For ovo-vegetarians, eggs are a great source of protein. Vegan options include nuts, tofu, soymilk, peanut butter, grains, legumes and seeds. Vegetarians have to consider getting enough “complete protein.” Protein is made up of small parts called amino acids (which help with metabolism). A complete protein is protein that contains all the amino acids the body needs. You can get complete protein by eating certain vegetables together, such as rice and beans or corn and beans.
Vitamin D, like calcium, plays an important role in bone health. Products made from cow’s milk are often a primary vitamin D source. Other good sources are vitamin D-fortified soymilk, rice milk and cereals. Because the body produces its own vitamin D in response to sunlight, the sun exposure you get in everyday life can also boost your levels of this nutrient.
Vitamin B12 helps produce red blood cell and prevent anemia. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get this important nutrient from eggs or dairy products. For vegans, it can be a challenge to get enough vitamin B12 because it is not found naturally in non-animal products. If you’re a vegan, look for cereals, soymilks and vegetarian products fortified with vitamin B12. Also, consider taking a supplement to avoid deficiency.
Zinc is vital to your immune system. Zinc is easily obtained from cheese, and also can be found in beans, nuts and soy products.
Omega-3 fatty acids help improve heart health and also may reduce the risk of depression. Flaxseed meal and flaxseed oil are good sources. Add flaxseed meal or oil to recipes when cooking, or take a flaxseed oil supplement.
As you get used to your vegetarian diet, take time to explore new varieties of healthy foods. If you have questions or concerns, talk to your family doctor. Individuals who have special health needs, such as diabetes, should consult his or her doctor before making any diet changes.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from Nature Made®.
- Mayo Clinic. Vegetarian Diet: Can It Help Me Control My Diabetes?. Accessed 08/12/11
- KidsHealth. Becoming a Vegetarian. Accessed 08/12/11
- Mayo Clinic. Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition. Accessed 08/12/11
- MedicineNet. What Are the Benefits of a Vegetarian and Vegan Diet?. Accessed 08/12/11
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.