Vegetarian Diets: Getting The Nutrients You Need

Vegetarian diets have been associated with many health benefits including diminished risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and reduced overall mortality. Much of the benefits are likely derived from the focus on fruits and vegetables. Decreased fat and calorie intake, and consequently less obesity, are also likely contributing factors. While vegetarian diets usually include advantages of increased dietary fiber, potassium, and vitamin C ("Dietary" 45), there are areas of nutrient concern for vegetarian diets; these include calcium, iron, protein, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D.

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." —Vegetarian Eating: Fact or Fiction

The main types of vegetarian (or predominately vegetarian) diets are vegan, lacto-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and pescetarian / flexitarian.

  • Vegan Diet. A vegan diet is wholly plant-based with no animal products at all. Vegans eat diets consisting of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • Lacto-Vegetarian Diet. A lacto-vegetarian diet is one that includes all of the foods of a vegan diet with the addition of dairy foods (lacto="milk").
  • Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian Diet. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is one that includes all of the foods of a lacto-vegetarian diet with the addition of eggs (ovo="egg").
  • Pescetarian/Flexitarian Diets. In addition to the foods eaten in a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, pescetarians eat fish and flexitarians eat chicken and fish. Although both of these diets are predominately vegetarian, they are not recognized as vegetarian by The Vegetarian Society as they allow the consumption of animals ("Fishconceptions").

Even though vegetarian diets are more restrictive, “Most healthy vegetarians don't need to take supplements” according to Vegetarian Eating: Fact or Fiction, a publication by the American Dietetic Association. However, vegetarians do need to pay particular attention to getting enough calcium, iron, protein, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D.

In order to meet their calcium requirements, all vegetarians can look to vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, collard greens, turnips, and kale. Other foods like juices, cereals, and soy products are often fortified with calcium. Vegetarians who allow dairy can get calcium from milk, yogurt, and cheese as well.

Dietary iron comes in two forms: nonheme and heme. Nonheme iron is found in plant-based foods such as soybeans, lentils, beans, molasses, and spinach. It is also sometimes added during processing to foods such as cereal and oatmeal. Those “vegetarians” who eat fish or chicken have access to heme iron, which is the type of iron that is more easily absorbed by the body but is only found in animal foods. A vegetarian diet tends to be high in vitamin C which can have a positive effect on iron absorption as well.

For protein, vegetarians can incorporate foods such as beans, peas, soy nuts, and seeds in their diet ("Dietary" 53). Vegetarians who permit dairy in their diets can also get protein from milk products, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get protein from eggs as well.

To obtain zinc, vegetarians can eat foods such as pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, white beans, kidney beans, and zinc-fortified cereals. Zinc found in milk would be available to those vegetarians who allow dairy.

As plant foods aren't a natural source of vitamin B12, it is necessary for vegans to eat foods fortified with B12. Alternatively or in conjunction, they can opt to get B12 shots or take B12 supplements. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) supports this by saying, “vegans should ensure adequate intake of vitamin B12 through fortified foods or supplements” (49). More liberal vegetarians can get B12 from milk, and those who eat eggs can also get B12 from them.

Vitamin D is produced from skin exposure to the sun. For vegans, foods that have been fortified with the vitamin such as cereals, orange juice, and soy drinks provide additional opportunity to get adequate amounts. Milk and yogurt are often fortified with it as well and would provide extra sources for those vegetarians who eat dairy. Vegetarians who eat eggs can also get some vitamin D from egg yolks, and those who eat fish may be able to increase their options as well.

As shown above, through careful eating and meal planning, those eating a vegetarian diet can get the nutritional requirements they need and remain at an advantage for increased health benefits.

Works Cited

"Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.", U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, December 2010. Web. 7 May 2011. < PDF>.

"Fishconceptions: Whichever Way You Cut It, Vegetarians Don't Eat Fish!" The Vegetarian Society, publish date unknown. Web. 7 May 2011. <>.

"Vegetarian Eating: Fact or Fiction." eat right, American Dietetic Association, publish date unknown. Web. 6 May 2011. < PDF>.

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