Why go vegetarian?
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109:1266-1282.
People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. On average, they also have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than non-vegetarians. Reasons for following the diet vary, but may include health concerns, environmental concerns, compassion for animals, religious beliefs, or dislike of meat.
Use this information as a starting point. If you are considering a vegetarian lifestyle, meet with a registered dietitian to make a meal plan that meets vitamin, mineral, and energy needs.
Vegetarian Diets: Defined
Vegetarian: Do not eat fish, meat, or poultry
Vegan: Abstain from eating or using all animal products, including milk, cheese, eggs, other dairy items, wool, silk, or leather.
Some people refer to themselves as semi-vegetarians. Eating vegetarian a few meals a week is a healthy choice for non-vegetarians.
Vegetarians can easily meet protein needs by eating a variety of foods and enough calories to maintain their weight. A combination of proteins throughout the day will provide all the essential amino acids so pairing proteins is unnecessary.
Protein sources: tofu, beans, soy, lentils, nuts, seeds, low fat dairy, peanut butter, quinoa…other foods like whole grains, potatoes, peas, and corn will also contribute to protein intake.
Zinc sources: whole grains, legumes, nuts, low fat dairy products.
Plant foods contain non-heme iron, which does not absorb as well as iron from animal sources. For better absorption, eat foods high in vitamin C with iron-rich foods.
Iron sources: dried beans, peas and lentils, spinach, chard, bulgur, prune juice, whole grain cereals and breads, fortified cereals, and dried fruit.
Vitamin C sources: citrus (oranges, grapefruit, tangerines), tomatoes (fresh, marinara sauce, salsa), broccoli.
Examples: Spinach salad with mandarin oranges, whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce, broccoli and brown rice.
Calcium is essential for building bones and teeth. Aim to eat 3-4 servings of calcium-rich foods per day. If you fall short, consider a calcium supplement (500 mg twice per day).
Calcium sources: bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, fortified juices, low fat dairy products, tofu prepared with calcium, fortified soy milk.
Click here for more information on calcium.
Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium. Emerging research suggests that many people are deficient in vitamin D, particularly during the winter months when sun exposure is low.
Dairy foods in the U.S. are fortified with vitamin D, but few foods are naturally good sources. If you do not eat dairy products and get little daily sun exposure, consider taking a vitamin D supplement that meets 100% of the RDA.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for cardiovascular and neurological health. Vegetarian diets tend to be low in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly when they exclude fish and eggs. While walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and soy contain some omega-3 fatty acids, they are not absorbed as efficiently as the omega-3 fatty acids from fish. Algae-derived vegan supplements of EPA and DHA are available, as well as fish oil supplements. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are considering a supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources: salmon, mackerel, flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy, fortified products.
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products. Diets containing dairy and eggs provide adequate B12. Other sources of B12 include fortified breads, cereals, soy milk, and yeast. If you do not regularly consume dairy, eggs, or fortified foods, consider taking a non-animal derived supplement. While the RDA for vitamin B12 is low, deficiency can lead to permanent neurological damage.
Vitamin B-12 sources: eggs, dairy products, fortified soy milk, fortified cereal, fortified veggie meat
Useful Websites for Vegetarians from the American Dietetic Association
American Dietetic Association
Food and Nutrition Information Center
Loma Linda University Vegetarian Nutrition & Health Letter
Seventh-day Adventist Dietetic Association
The Vegan Society (vitamin B-12)
Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group
Vegetarian Resource Group
The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom