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Trying a Vegetarian Diet? These Vitamins are a Must!

You probably have a friend or family member who’s a vegetarian. They’re among millions of other Americans who have ditched animal products. Nearly every restaurant and grocery store now offer vegetarian and/or vegan options, and the number of social media communities has exploded over the last few years. If you’re considering a plant-based diet here’s what you what you need to know.

What is a vegetarian?

A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat including beef, chicken, pork or fish, especially for moral, religious, health, or personal reasons.

There are several types of “vegetarians” including flexitarians, who occasionally eat meat, and pesci-vegetarians who will eat fish. Then there are certain “vegetarian” types who do/don’t eat dairy or who do/don’t eat eggs. Vegans do not eat animal products or animal-derived ingredients, and some will not wear animal products such as leather, wool or silk.

Are vegetarian diets healthy enough?

With a little planning vegetarian diets can be healthy as long as they are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and calcium-rich foods. Some vegetarians depend too heavily on processed foods, which can be high in calories, sugar and fat. But vegetarians who do meet their nutritional needs can enjoy many benefits including a lower risk of heart disease, blood sugar issues, and other chronic conditions. Some vegetarians claim their diet gives them more energy and helps them lose weight.

What are some options for vegetarian protein?

Needed for muscle growth, protein is a must. Fortunately, there are many tasty, non-meat options such as:

  • Peanut butter
  • Almond butter
  • Soy yogurt
  • Hummus
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Green peas
  • Meat substitutes like veggie burgers
  • Quinoa
  • Oatmeal
  • Wild rice

What nutrients do I need to stay healthy as a vegetarian?

Since certain foods are removed from their diet, vegetarians need to make sure they get enough important vitamins and minerals including the following.

Vitamin B-12 is important for red blood cells and the nervous system. Since it is mainly found only in animal products, vegans will need to work extra hard to obtain it, usually through supplementation. Vegetarians can obtain B-12 from milk and eggs.

Iron is needed for healthy red blood cells and is found in dark green leafy vegetables (spinach), dried fruits, beans, lentils, whole-grain products, and fortified breakfast cereals. Plant-based iron is not as easily absorbed as in meat, but adding Vitamin C can help absorption, so include citrus fruits, strawberries, peppers and tomatoes to your diet.

Zinc, like iron, is also not as easily absorbed from plants, yet it’s essential for your immune system, metabolism and healing. Find it in whole grains, wheat germ, fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products, nuts and seeds.

Calcium builds strong bones and teeth. While milk, cheese and traditional yogurt are highest in calcium, dark green vegetables including collard greens, kale and broccoli are also a good source. Keep in mind, however, the amount your body can absorb from vegetable sources varies. You can also try calcium-fortified juices, cereals and soy milk.   

Vitamin D goes hand-in-hand with calcium for bone health. While your body makes Vitamin D from sunshine, that’s hard to do if you use a lot of sunscreen or live in northern climates. You can  get Vitamin D from egg yolks, or fortified dairy and juice. If you don’t eat enough fortified foods and have limited sun exposure, you may need to supplement.

Iodine is involved in thyroid hormones, which keep your body’s metabolism in sync. Fortunately, just about ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt daily provides a significant amount of iodine. Other sources include sweet potatoes, soybeans and leafy vegetables.

Some vegetarians and vegans choose to supplement their diet with Spirulina because it contains almost all the vitamins you need plus protein. Lots of people consider it a superfood due to its excellent nutritional content, antioxidants and various health benefits. It contains B12, iron, protein, and more making it an all-around multivitamin from nature.

There are many good reasons to eating a vegetarian diet, but it starts with making smart food choices and/or supplementing with the right nutrients. Make sure you’re giving your body what it needs to stay in tip-top shape. Here’s to a healthy vegetarian lifestyle!