TweetAlthough a vegetarian diet can be much healthier than a meat-based diet, it may be just as unhealthy if it doesn’t include certain nutrients that are not found in high concentrations in non-animal sources. However, most health risks faced by vegetarians and vegans are easily avoidable with a balanced diet that includes a few vitamins and minerals that are usually found in dairy products, fish, poultry, or meat.
For example, vitamin B12 is commonly found in animal products. This essential vitamin helps maintain the central nervous system, aids in the formation of red blood cells, and has a reputation for its role in helping the body deal with the physiological effects of stress. The amount of B12 that the body needs each day is very small – only 3 micrograms – so a serious B12 deficiency is actually rare in vegetarians. (However, pregnant or nursing vegetarians should make sure that their diet includes adequate B12 intake not only for themselves, but also for their babies.)
If you wish to increase your B12 intake, look for foods that are enriched with B vitamins, such as soymilk or rice milk, tempeh, fortified breakfast cereals, or meat substitutes such as Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP).
Another nutrient you may need to take in supplement form is calcium, especially if you are vegan and avoid dairy products. Fortified soymilk is an excellent source of calcium, as is calcium-enriched orange juice. Good plant sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and broccoli, and legumes such as soybeans.
A common myth about the vegetarian diet is that it causes anemia, a lack of sufficient iron. Studies suggest that although anemia is a common problem in the United States, vegetarians are no more likely than meat-eaters to develop anemia. That’s because iron is plentiful in several vegetable sources: dried fruits (such as dates, raisins and apricots), pumpkin and sunflower seeds, green vegetables, beans (such as black beans and kidney beans), and lentils are excellent sources of iron. To maximize iron absorption, simply eat iron-rich foods along with fruits or vegetables containing vitamin C – also common in a healthy vegetarian diet.
Another nutrition concern for vegetarians and vegans is how to get enough protein without consuming meat. Fortunately, vegetarian protein sources abound – even for vegans who don’t eat eggs or dairy products. To add protein to your vegetarian diet, try increasing your consumption of nuts, seeds, and nut butters; eat more “imitation meat” products, which are frequently high in soy protein; drink soymilk; increase your intake of beans; or eat more soy products such as tofu and tempeh.
Other nutrients you may need to supplement with are vitamin D and zinc. Vitamin D occurs in fortified milk, eggs, and fish, but is also produced by the human body when it is exposed to sunlight – so a vegan may need to either spend a few more minutes each week in the sun or make sure to take a multivitamin containing vitamin D. Zinc’s best sources are meat and yogurt, but it is also found in spinach, legumes, and whole grains.
One last nutritional pitfall that is most problematic for young vegetarians is the substitution of junk food or fast food for a nutritious, balanced vegetarian diet that includes all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Simply eliminating meat from the diet and calling oneself a vegetarian doesn’t make one healthy, especially if the plant foods consumed on a daily basis are French fries, ketchup, and fruit punch that is only 10% fruit juice.
Vegetarians with specific health conditions – such as those who are diabetic, pregnant, nursing, or who are young children – may need to consult a doctor or nutritionist in order to make sure their vegetarian or vegan diet is balanced for their specific needs. However, for everyone else, a healthy vegetarian diet simply means eating a variety of the right kind of nutritious plant foods and meat substitutes. And you may just find that eating right makes for a more interesting diet, too.
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