The Healthy Vegetarian Diet: What You Need to Know

Whether motivated by religious, philosophical, ecological, or other reasons, vegetarian diets are a popular choice for many people. There are many variations of the vegetarian diet. Those who follow a typical vegetarian diet usually eliminate red meat and poultry, while still consuming fish and dairy products such as milk and cheese. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it is possible to have a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet. Although there are some vitamins and minerals that vegetarians are especially at risk for deficiency, a carefully planned diet can easily remedy this.

The Health Benefits

The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (“bad” cholesterol”), lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension, and lower rates of type 2 diabetes, than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Vegetarians also have a reduced risk of chronic disease due to lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals. 

Vitamins and Minerals of Concern

Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega–3 fatty acids. See sources of these vitamins and minerals below for ideas on how to incorporate them into a vegetarian diet. If not through food, these vitamins and minerals can be taken as a dietary supplement, if needed.

Iron: Legumes, nuts and seeds, prunes, raisins, fortified cereals and grains, kale, and broccoli.

Zinc: if not consuming eggs and dairy, try whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, tempeh, miso, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Calcium: If not consuming dairy products such as milk and cheese, try chickpeas, broccoli, dried figs, enriched whole-wheat bread, calcium-set tofu, and calcium-fortified soy cheese, orange juice, or fortified cereal.

Vitamin D: If not consuming salmon, yogurt, or eggs, talk with a doctor or registered dietitian about taking a Vitamin D supplement.

B12: If not consuming eggs or dairy, try vegan cheese, fortified cereals, and fortified veggie burgers. You may need to consider taking a Vitamin B12 Supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids: If not consuming fish, try flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts, soybeans, soybean oil, olive oil, and hemp oil.

Protein Needs

Both those consuming a meat-free diet along with those who eat meat, need to make sure they are consuming ample complete protein. Complete protein refers to the 9 essential amino acids that the body can’t make. In other words, these amino acids must be consumed through the diet because the body can’t produce them on it’s own. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all 9 of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.

Eggs are the only meat-free complete source of protein. But it isn’t necessary to consume only complete sources of protein at every meal. As long as vegetarians consume a wide variety of amino acids throughout the day, it is possible to consume all 9 essential amino acids. Quinoa, buckwheat, soy, rice and beans, hummus, and chia are all great sources of amino acids. 

For more information on vegetarian diets, visit The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and The Mayo Clinic.  

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