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Making sure your vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate

A well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthful and nutritionally adequate. Keep in mind that the more restricted the diet, the greater the chance of a nutritional deficiency. Below are some special considerations to remember when following a vegetarian diet:

Protein

Vegetarian diets can provide an adequate amount of protein as long as you eat a variety of foods and consume enough calories to stay healthy. Protein is made up of amino acids, nine of which are called essential amino acids. Animal foods contain all of the essential amino acids, whereas plant foods are missing one or two. However, if you eat a variety of plant foods, you will get all nine essential amino acids. Sources of plant protein: dried beans/peas, lentils, tofu, soy cheese, soy milk, tempeh, nut butters and vegetarian burgers.

Iron

Plant foods contain a different form of iron than animal foods, called non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is not as well absorbed as heme iron. Non-heme iron will be better absorbed if eaten along with foods that contain vitamin C, or by cooking foods in cast iron pots and pans. Sources of iron: bran flakes cereal, instant oatmeal, fortified cereals, sea vegetables, pumpkin seeds, dried beans/peas, tofu, textured vegetable protein. Sources of vitamin C: cantaloupe, honeydew melon, citrus fruits, kiwi, papaya, strawberries, broccoli, green peppers, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts.

Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is found mainly in animal foods. Some plant foods contain vitamin B-12, but not in a usable form. A lacto-ovo or lacto-vegetarian diet will provide adequate amounts of vitamin B-12. Certain foods are fortified with vitamin B-12, such as some breakfast cereals, soy milk and meat substitutes. If you are a vegan, you must either make sure you eat these fortified foods, or take a B-12 supplement. Sources of vitamin B-12: fortified cereals, brewer’s yeast, fortified meat substitutes, eggs, milk and milk products, fortified soy milk.

Calcium

A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet generally is adequate in calcium. A vegan diet tends to provide lower amounts of calcium, although, with careful planning, a vegan diet can supply enough calcium. Your dietitian may recommend a calcium supplement if you can’t meet your calcium needs through food sources. Sources of calcium: milk and milk products, fortified soy milk, tofu (made with calcium), fortified orange juice, legumes, collard greens, turnip greens, kale.

Vitamin D

Vegan diets may be low in vitamin D, since cow’s milk is the most common source of this vitamin. However, if you follow a vegan diet, you can get enough vitamin D from fortified cereals and fortified soy milk. Exposure to sunlight for 5-15 minutes a day can also supply enough vitamin D. Some people may need a vitamin D supplement; speak to your dietitian about this if you have concerns. Sources of vitamin D: fortified cereals, milk, fortified soy milk, sunlight.

Page last updated: December 19, 2014