Did you know that the term vegetarian actually includes 4 different types of diets including vegans (strict vegetarians who eat no animal products), lacto-vegetarians (avoid meat, fish and eggs but do eat dairy foods), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (avoid meat and fish but do eat dairy and eggs) and flexitarians (usually follow a vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat). It is possible for all types of vegetarians to get the nutrients that they need for health, but just like for non-vegetarians, the key is eating a well-balanced diet and making healthy choices within each food group. If you are currently following a vegetarian diet or are thinking about it, here are some nutrients to pay special attention to and where you can find them in food:
- Protein: Protein has many roles including building, repairing and maintaining all of our body tissues. Protein is made up of amino acids, some which can be made by our body (called non-essential amino-acids) and some that we must get from our food (called essential amino acids). The key to meeting your protein needs is eating a wide variety of plant based protein-rich foods including beans, peas, nuts and nut butters, and soy foods (tofu, veggie burgers). For lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs and dairy foods are also good protein sources.
- Calcium: Calcium is important for building and maintaining bone and dental health. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are rich in calcium for vegetarians that include them in their diet. Other sources include calcium-fortified soy or rice beverages, calcium-fortified juices, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and some dark-green leafy vegetables (kale, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens).
- Iron: Iron is essential for carrying oxygen through our blood from the lungs to our body cells. Although iron from animal sources tends to be better absorbed than iron from plant sources, consuming foods rich in vitamin C at each meal, such as citrus fruits and juices, bell peppers, tomatoes, can help to increase iron absorption. Vegetarian-friendly sources of iron include iron-fortified cereals and bread products, dried beans, peas, dark green vegetables like spinach, molasses, and some dried fruits (apricots, prunes, raisins).
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D promotes bone health by helping absorb and deposit bone building nutrients like calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D also plays a role in regulating cell growth, immune function and reducing inflammation among other roles. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because our bodies produce it when our skin is exposed to sunlight but it is also important to get vitamin D through food. Good sources include eggs and vitamin-D fortified cow’s milk, soy beverages, juices and breakfast cereals. For vegetarians who don’t consume eggs or dairy foods, it may be a good idea to speak with your doctor about considering a vitamin D supplement.
- Vitamin B12- This vitamin is important for making red blood cells. Sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians include milk products, eggs, and vitamin B12 fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, soymilk, veggie burgers, and nutritional yeast.
- Zinc: Zinc is important for cell reproduction and tissue growth and promotes a healthy immune system. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can find zinc in eggs and milk. Zinc is also found in beans (white beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas), zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ, and pumpkin seeds.