Considering the move to a vegetarian diet?
11/18/2021 by Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.N., L.D.
While following a vegetarian diet is a healthy way of eating, you need to consider how to get the appropriate nutrients. It's also important to remember that a vegetarian diet is not necessarily a weight-loss diet. Rather, it's a healthy lifestyle choice.
With a little planning, a vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. It's important to include a variety of foods while not relying too heavily on processed foods. Processed foods can be higher in calories, sugar, fat and sodium.
The types of vegetarian diets, and what foods are included and excluded, differ:
This diet excludes meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, are included.
This diet excludes meat, poultry, seafood and dairy, but it allows eggs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian
This diet excludes meat, fish and poultry, but it allows dairy products and eggs.
This diet excludes meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, but it allows fish.
This diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, and all foods that contain these products.
- Semivegetarian (or flexitarian)
This primarily plant-based diet includes dairy, eggs and poultry, and fish on occasion or in small quantities.
When moving to a vegetarian diet, remember these key nutrients in your meals:
This nutrient keeps your bones strong and prevents fractures. Milk and dairy products are highest in calcium. Dark green vegetables when eaten in sufficient quantities provide calcium, as well. Consider calcium-enriched and fortified products, as well.
- Vitamin D
This nutrient is important for bone health, immune function and reduction of inflammation. Vitamin D is added to milk, some soy and rice milk, and some cereals. It's naturally found in mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light.
- Vitamin B-12
This vitamin is necessary to produce blood cells and prevent anemia. Dairy and eggs are good sources. Vegans and older adults who may have more difficulty absorbing vitamin B-12 may require fortified foods or vitamin supplements.
This nutrient helps maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Eggs and dairy products are good sources, but you don't need to eat large quantities of these foods to meet your needs. Soy products, legumes, lentils, seeds, nuts and whole grains are also good sources of protein.
- Omega-3 fatty acids
They are especially important for heart health and during pregnancy. Excluding fish and eggs can decrease the amount of omega-3 your body requires. While canola oil, soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed and soybeans are good sources of plant-based omega-3, the body uses them less efficiently.
- Iron and zinc
Iron is a crucial component of red blood cells. Because iron isn't as easily absorbed from plant sources, the recommended intake of iron is almost double if you receive your iron from plant sources, such as dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit. Zinc also is not easily absorbed from plant sources, such as whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ. Legumes and cheese are good options to fulfill your zinc requirements.
This is a component in thyroid hormones, which helps regulate your metabolism, growth and function of key organs. Plant-based diets are typically low in iodine. Adding just one-fourth of a teaspoon of iodized salt a day provides a significant amount of iodine.
Whichever diet you decide on, it's important to choose a variety of healthy plant-based foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts, and whole grains. At the same time, be sure to cut back on less healthy choices, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, overly processed foods and refined grains.
Be sure that whatever diet you choose includes the nutrients you need to stay healthy. For more information, talk to your health care team or request a referral to a dietician to learn more.
Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.N., L.D., is a dietitian who has worked for Mayo Clinic in Rochester for more than 20 years. Her areas of interest range from wellness nutrition to pediatrics.