Plant-based diets are increasing in popularity as a way to improve health, prevent disease, maintain a proper body weight, and to follow a green/sustainable lifestyle. Vegetarian diets can provide adequate nutrition when the right food choices are made. If you are considering making the switch to a diet consisting of more meat-free meals, here is what you need to know:
Protein: You can provide your body with all of the essential amino acids it needs by taking care to eat a wide variety of plant-based protein throughout the day. Good choices include:
- Beans and peas
- Nuts and Nut butters
- Soy products such as tofu, veggie burgers/hotdogs, and tempeh
- Whole grains such as quinoa (a seed originally from the Andes region of South America that contains all eight essential amino acids)
- For ovo lacto vegetarians, eggs and reduced-fat and nonfat cheeses and milk are good sources
Iron: There has been some concern in the past that individuals who follow a strict vegetarian diet are at an increased risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia because the body does not absorb iron from plant sources as well as it does from animal sources. Increasing your awareness of good plant-based sources of iron, as well as learning which foods will inhibit iron absorption, is important to reduce your risk. Consuming adequate amounts of Vitamin C-rich foods (e.g., orange juice, citrus fruits, and tomatoes) in combination with plant sources of iron will improve your body’s absorption of this mineral.
Good plant sources of iron include:
- Fortified whole-grain breads and cereals
- Dark green vegetables such as spinach and turnip and beet greens
- Dried beans and legumes such as kidney beans and lentils
- Black-eyed peas
- Certain dried fruits such as prunes, apricots, and raisins
- Blackstrap molasses
Foods that interfere with your body’s ability to absorb iron include:*
- Foods high in calcium and zinc
- protein from soy, egg, and milk products
*Note: these foods do not have to be eliminated from your diet, but care should be taken to not regularly consume them at the same time you eat iron-rich foods. This is where balance and variety throughout the day become important.
Calcium: Some studies suggest that the body absorbs and retains calcium better from a vegetarian diet than it does from a non-vegetarian diet. Good sources of calcium for vegetarians include:
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and collard greens
- Fortified foods such as soy and/or rice milk, orange juice, and cereals
- Lacto vegetarians can get calcium from reduced-fat and nonfat diary products
Vitamin B12: Because Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, strict vegetarians can be at risk for a deficiency. Sources of Vitamin B12 for the vegetarian include:
- Fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, cereals, and soy-based products (soy milk, veggie burgers, etc.,)
- Ovo lacto vegetarians can get Vitamin B12 from eggs and reduced-fat and nonfat dairy products
You can follow a vegetarian diet and still meet your body’s nutritional needs through proper planning and incorporating a variety of plant-based foods into your meals and snacks throughout the day. Seeking the advice of a registered dietitian can help you to develop food combinations that maximize your potential for getting adequate amounts of protein and iron in your diet. For more information on living a vegetarian lifestyle visit the websites of the American Dietetic Association and/or the United States Department of Agriculture.
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