Vegetarian diets have increased in popularity in recent years. Motivation to become a vegetarian is varied; in the Western region of the United States the top reasons include ethical and environmental concerns, religious concerns, health reasons and gustatory reasons. There are two different terms that you may hear when discussing this topic and those are vegan and vegetarian. A vegan diet is devoid of all flesh foods making it more restrictive compared to a vegetarian diet which is devoid of all flesh foods but can include egg (ovo) and/or dairy (lacto) products.
Among adults being treated for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, or cholesterol management following a vegetarian diet has shown effective for decreasing total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol also known as bad cholesterol. When well planned, a vegetarian and/or vegan diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease and is an effective way to bring about short- and long-term improvements in weight when part of a multi-component weight-management program. Yet, some vegetarians still overconsume heavily processed foods, which are high in calories, added sugar, fat, and sodium. For example, a sugar-sweetened beverage, slice of cheese pizza, and a candy bar are all technically considered vegetarian.
What to Include
A strategic plan needs to be put in place when restricting dietary intake in the case of a vegan or vegetarian diet to ensure nutrient deficiencies do not occur. In order to avoid nutrient deficiencies and get the most out of a vegetarian diet, it should include a variety of plant-based foods. Examples include whole fruits, vegetables and grains, legumes, and nuts. Nutrients that will most likely need to be supplemented if following a vegetarian diet include vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and iodine. Each of these nutrients plays an important role in the body and must be consumed in adequate amounts to avoid deficienies.
All well balanced diets require planning, but vegetarian diets require extra in order to ensure all the nutritional needs are met. Based on ten studies, two of which were conducted in the United States pregnant vegetarians had lower intake of vitamin B12, vitamin C, calcium, protein, iron, folate, and zinc.
Vitmain B12, Zinc, Iron, and Iodine
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods, so when you restrict or eliminate intake of these foods it leads to a deficiency if this nutrient is not supplemented. Zinc found naturally in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts and whole grains helps the immune system fight off bacteria and viruses as well as to make proteins and DNA. Zinc is absorbed better when received through animal foods, as phytates found in plant-based foods hinder its absorption. Iodine found naturally in fish, seafood, dairy products, and iodized salt is needed to make thyroid hormones, which control metabolism and other important bodily functions. Iron is naturally found in both plant and animal proteins, but the iron in animal protein is easier to absorb, so if you’re consuming a majority of your iron from plant foods try to consume foods that contain vitamin C in concert to promote optimal iron absorption.
Variety is key when aiming to consume adequate protein in the diet. The majority of animal based protein sources are considered complete proteins as they have all nine essential amino acids. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins meaning that they do not have all nine essential amino acids that our body cannot produce, so if following a vegetarian diet, you need to get a variety of incomplete proteins to ensure you’re fueling your body with the right building blocks to make a complete protein. Research has found that you don’t have to consume the two incomplete protein foods in the same meal in order to absorb all nine amino acids, so current recommendations are to consume a variety of different plant-based proteins throughout the day which will help ensure you get all of the essential amino acids you need.
Vitamin D, Calcium and Vitamin K
Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods such as eggs, fatty fish, mushrooms and fortified milk. Vitamin D is also synthesized in our bodies from the sun but is commonly still low in the American population and even more deficient in those following a vegetarian diet. Calcium is found naturally in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, etc. and in green leafy vegetables. Both vitamin D and calcium are needed for bone health, as well as vitamin K. Vitamin K is also needed for blood clotting and may also need to be supplemented if dark green vegetables and oils aren’t included in adequate amounts in the diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and also in nuts, seeds and plant oils. So, a well-balanced diet that includes adequate nuts, seeds and plant oils may prevent you from having to supplement with omega-3 fatty acids when following a vegetarian diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential, meaning we must consume them in the diet, as our body cannot synthesize them.
If you’re thinking that you like the benefits from a vegetarian/vegan diet but aren’t sure you want to change your eating habits that much, you can always try a meatless meal once a week which can help decrease saturated fat intake as well. You can also get many of the same health benefits from following the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes plant foods, fish and seafood, with a sparing use of red meat and sweets. To ensure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs whether you’re following a restricted diet or not you can work with a Registered Dietitian.
University of Wyoming Extension- Nutrition and Food Safety Educator Shelley Balls, MDA, RD, LD
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, www.eatright.org/
- United States Department of Agriculture, www.usda.gov/