Vegetarians choose to eliminate meat and animal products from the diet and focus primarily on eating plant products such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds. This will often increase the intake of healthy vitamins and minerals, while eliminating unhealthy components found in some animal products such as fatty or chemically altered meats. However, careless vegetarian dieting can also lead to a lack of protein and other nutrients typically derived from animal products. Vegetarians must take caution to ensure the diet remains well-rounded and as healthy and inclusive as possible. There are many tips that will positively influence vegetarian dieting.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet are protein, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and iron. Including enough protein is typically the first concern for those who are new to vegetarian dieting, as it is the primary component of meat. However, vegetarians can ensure adequate quantities of protein are ingested by adding a variety of beans, rice, peas, nuts, and soy products. The only unfortified sources vitamin B12 are eggs, dairy products, and meat, but fortified vegetarian sources are available in products such as veggie burgers, yeast extracts, and vegetable margarines.
Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth. Vegetarian dieting should include calcium sources such as tofu, soy beverages, green leafy vegetables like collard greens and bok choy, as well as calcium-fortified products such as orange juice and cereals. Zinc can be found in a variety of foods. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent choice for zinc, as are lentils, whole grain cereals, yeast, and beans. Sources of iron include blackstrap molasses, wholegrain flours, and kidney beans. Some plant foods can inhibit the absorption of iron, so vegetarians should include food sources containing vitamin C such as citrus fruits, which will improve absorption.
Vegetarian dieting may seem complicated at first, but once one is familiar with vegetarian food sources that include the desired nutrients for optimal health, it becomes second nature to make the appropriate selections. Many dishes are easily converted to vegetarian options simply by leaving out the meat or substituting a vegetarian alternative. As with any diet, the best actions to take are to include as much variety as possible, choose whole foods over processed foods, and to make an effort to maintain a balanced diet that includes all the essential foods recommended by doctors and nutrition professionals.