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Vegetarian Diet

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet does not include meat. People who follow a vegetarian diet are called vegetarians. They do not eat animal meat, poultry, or fish. Many vegetarians also avoid other animal products such as gelatin, rennet (used to make some kinds of cheese), and animal fats. Vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products are called ovo-lacto vegetarians. People who do not eat any animal products are called vegans.

What are the advantages of a vegetarian diet?

A well-planned vegetarian diet can be good for your health. By not eating meat, you eat less cholesterol and less saturated fat. This may lower your risk of heart disease, gallstones, stroke, and some types of cancer.

Will I get all of the nutrients I need in a vegetarian diet?

All of the rules for a healthy diet are true for a vegetarian diet. You need to eat a variety of foods in moderate amounts. You may have to work a little harder to get all of the nutrients you need without meat. This is especially true if you eat no animal products at all.

A well planned vegetarian diet is safe. If it is too restricted or too high in sweets, sodas, and snack foods, it may be unhealthy. Even if you eat a lot of healthy salads and whole grains and drink fruit juice, you may not be getting enough important nutrients, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and protein. However, it is getting easier than it used to be to get all of the nutrients you need. Many fortified and convenience foods such as soy milk, meat analogs (veggie burgers and dogs), and frozen entrees are available now.

Here are some of the nutrients you need to be sure to get from your vegetarian diet.

  • Calcium: If you are not eating any milk products, the amount of calcium in your diet may be too low. Good nondairy sources of calcium that vegans can eat are tofu prepared with calcium (nigan), bok choy, collard greens, blackstrap molasses, and legumes (peas, beans, lentils). Breakfast cereals; orange juice; and soy, almond, and rice milks that are fortified with calcium are also good sources. Keep in mind that the calcium found in plant foods and even some fortified foods is not easily absorbed. Calcium is absorbed better in smaller amounts throughout the day. Try to choose fortified foods with no more than 500 milligrams (mg) of calcium per serving. If you are a vegan, discuss with your healthcare provider how you can get enough calcium. You may need to take calcium supplements.
  • Iron: It’s harder for the body to absorb iron from plants than from meat, poultry, and fish. Good nonmeat sources of iron are fortified cereals, soybeans, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), potatoes baked with their skins, spinach, blackstrap molasses, prune juice, prunes, raisins, and apricots. Eat foods containing vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, and tomatoes, when you eat plant foods that have iron. Eating these foods together helps the body to absorb the iron better.
  • Zinc: Zinc is not as easily absorbed from plant foods as it is from animal products. Because of this, vegetarians may need to eat more zinc than people who eat meat. Be sure to include good sources of zinc in your diet. Plant foods that contain zinc are fortified whole grains and cereals, legumes (peas, beans, lentils, peanuts), nuts and seeds, and soy foods (soy beans, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and fortified veggie meats).
  • Vitamin B-2: Milk and eggs are good sources of vitamin B-2, which is also called riboflavin. Good nonanimal sources of this vitamin are fortified cereals and soy milk, almonds, asparagus, bananas, legumes, sweet potatoes, tofu, wheat germ, and enriched breads.
  • Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is available naturally only in animal products, including dairy products and eggs. However, it is added to some fortified cereals, fortified soy milk, nutritional yeasts, and some meat substitutes. When you read food labels, look for the words cyanocobalamin or cobalamin in the ingredient list. These are the forms of Vitamin B-12 that are most easily absorbed.
  • Vitamin D: This vitamin has been routinely added to milk for years. Now it is more common to see it also added to other foods, such as cereal, yogurts, juices, and milk substitutes, such as soy and rice. The food label will tell you if a food is fortified with Vitamin D. Your skin makes vitamin D when it is exposed to direct sunshine, so spending some time outdoors is important. Many vegetarians and vegans take vitamin D supplements to make sure that they are getting enough.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Vegetarians should include good sources of linolenic acid (omega 3) in their diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally found in fish and eggs. Plant foods high in linolenic acid are flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, walnuts, soybeans, and soybean oil. Some margarines and nondairy milks are now fortified with omega-3s.
  • Iodine: Vegans may not get enough iodine. Food producers may not use iodized salt in processed foods, so vegans may want to use a little salt with iodine at the table or when they cook. Salt should be used only in limited amounts, so getting your iodine from a multivitamin mineral supplement may be the best choice. Sea vegetables, such as seaweed, contain iodine, but the amount varies a lot.
  • Protein: There are many nonanimal sources of protein. To start, get in the habit of having some kind of cooked beans (legumes) every day. Some examples of legumes are lentils; peanuts; split peas; pinto beans; soy (beans, tofu, tempeh); garbanzo beans; and black, white, kidney, and navy beans. One cup of cooked beans gives you the same amount of protein as 2 ounces of meat. Nuts are a good source of protein as well, but they are also high in fat and calories. If you are watching your weight, you should eat no more than 1/4 cup of nuts per day. Whole grains and vegetables are also a healthy source of protein, but these foods have less protein than beans and nuts. Be sure to eat a variety of foods to get a full complement of proteins.

If I am breast-feeding, will my breast milk provide enough nutrition for my baby?

If the diet is well planned, a vegetarian diet is safe during pregnancy and while you are breast-feeding. However, you need to make sure that the foods you eat have the nutrients your growing baby needs. You should include milk or other dairy products in your diet. You should also try to eat foods that have a high protein content, such as peanut butter, nuts, eggs, tofu, and legumes. These foods will help supply the protein and calcium your baby needs. Also make sure that you get enough zinc, iron, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.

Many healthcare providers recommend taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy and while you are breast-feeding. This can be especially helpful for vegetarians. Ask your provider if you need a B-12 supplement. Your baby may need to take B-12 as well.

Breast-fed babies should also take a vitamin D supplement. You can buy liquid multivitamin drops with vitamin D without a prescription. Ask your provider for a recommendation.

If you follow the above guidelines for getting enough nutrients from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and oils, you and your baby can have a healthy diet.

How do I know if I am eating healthfully?

If you are not getting enough vitamins or minerals, you may have symptoms such as:

  • rashes
  • a painful, swollen tongue
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • pale skin
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble breathing.

Check with your healthcare provider if you think you may not be getting all the nutrients you need.

Where can I get more information about vegetarian diets?

Recipes and more information on vegetarian diets can be found at your local library and on the Internet. Some helpful Web sites are:

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your provider if:

  • You are not sure if your diet is healthy.
  • You would like more information about nutrition and a vegetarian diet.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-08-04
Last reviewed: 2011-06-20
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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