Healthy vegetarianism: Getting the most from a meat-free diet

  • Published
  • By Kayla Scherf
  • Health and Wellness Center registered dietician
Whether it is because you are concerned about your health or animal welfare, being a vegetarian can be a healthy lifestyle for individuals of any age, according to the American Dietetic Association.

However, before you jump into a vegetarian diet, you need to understand how to get all of the essential nutrients that your body needs. There are many different types of vegetarians. The semi-vegetarians include those individuals that only eat some types of meat. For example, they may not eat beef but will still include chicken, fish and pork in their diet.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy and eggs but do not eat meat, fish or fowl. Lacto-vegetarians, on the other hand, omit the eggs, meat, fish and fowl from their diet but will eat dairy. Strict vegans are considered to be "total vegetarians" eating only grains, fruits, vegetables and plant sources for protein.

If you are already a vegetarian, hopefully you are getting all the nutrition you need and if you are thinking about becoming a vegetarian, you may want to seek advice from a dietitian.

It is important to eat a variety of foods, which include whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as dairy and eggs for those that include them in their diet. It is necessary for vegetarians to include a variety of foods in their diet so the body can build an adequate amount of protein.

Food provides amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein production by the body. Some amino acids are created by the body and are nonessential, but some need to be obtained through the food sources.

Many vegetarians have probably heard of the term complementary proteins. A complementary protein is a combination of plant based foods that provide all the essential amino acids. Some examples are beans and rice, tortillas and beans, and wheat bread and peanut butter. Many vegetarians believe that an entire meal needs to contain all the essential amino acids, but eating beans for lunch and rice for dinner will meet this requirement.

Depending on what type of vegetarian lifestyle you follow, certain vitamins and minerals may be omitted from your diet. It is important to be aware of some of these nutrients commonly missing from a vegetarian diet and how they can be replaced.

Vitamin B12 is found in meats, fish, eggs and dairy products. A strict vegan eliminating all forms of animal protein might lack vitamin B12 in their diet. However, a vegetarian can get B12 from fortified soy and rice beverages. Other sources include fortified breakfast cereals and meat analogs.

To find plant-based food sources with added vitamin B12, read the nutrition labels. For vegetarians omitting dairy products, consuming an adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D becomes a concern. Calcium is found mainly in dairy products with some fortified foods on the market, like orange juice and soy milk.

It is important for vegetarians to purchase foods fortified with calcium if they are omitting dairy products.
Vitamin D is fortified in milk and yogurt and can also be found in eggs.

Exposing yourself to the sun is another way to get some vitamin D, but it is hard to measure how much exposure one needs to meet nutritional needs. Talk to your doctor to see if you should have a blood test to determine if you are getting an adequate amount of vitamin D.

Another nutrient of concern is iron. Iron is a mineral that can be found in a vegetarian's diet if they include fortified breakfast cereals, soybeans, tofu, dried fruit like raisins, broccoli, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and blackstrap molasses, just to name a few.

To increase the absorption of iron, eat foods high in vitamin C like oranges, tomatoes and peppers. For some vegetarians, supplements maybe necessary and should be discussed with your doctor.

For more information or to make an appointment with the dietician, call Kayla Scherf at 229-257-1443 or e-mail