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Vegetarian Diet Can Present Nutritional Challenges
There are many reasons to consider a vegetarian diet, ranging from concerns about animal welfare to efforts to improve your health. Most doctors agree that a vegetarian diet can be healthier than a diet that includes large amounts of meat. However, getting all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet can be challenging, and it gets more challenging the stricter your diet is.
The Mayo Clinic says that vegetarians should eat a widely varied diet and be particularly careful to get enough of these nutrients:
Vitamin B-12, which helps fend off anemia. B-12 comes almost exclusively from animal products. If you follow a vegan diet – which does not allow any animal products at all, including milk, eggs, any meat product and any food that contains any of these products – you are eliminating all natural sources of vitamin B-12. Therefore, you might want to consider fortified foods such as cereals or talk to your doctor about a supplement.
Calcium, which builds healthy bones and teeth. Milk and other dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium, but if you don’t consume those, you can get calcium from a variety of plant foods such as dark green vegetables like kale, broccoli and greens. You also can eat calcium-fortified products. And if you still are not getting enough calcium, check with your doctor about a supplement.
Protein, which promotes organ health. Meat, dairy and eggs are excellent sources of protein. But you also can get protein from soy (including meat substitutes), lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. Eggs and cold-water fish are the main sources of these nutrients. They also are available in some nuts, but the body does not process plant-based omega-3 very efficiently, so you might need supplements or fortified foods.
Iron and zinc, which also are not as accessible to the body in plant-based foods. Because of this, the recommended iron intake is nearly double for vegetarians than for meat-eaters. You can help your body absorb more iron if you eat foods rich in vitamin C along with iron-rich plant-based foods like dried beans and peas, lentils, whole grains and dark leafy vegetables. Good plant sources of zinc include cheese as well as whole grains, soy, legumes, nuts and wheat germ.
Iodine, which helps your thyroid. To help ensure you get enough iodine, eat at least ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt a day.
If you are considering becoming a vegetarian, talk to your doctor for specific suggestions about ensuring that your new diet meets your needs.