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Vegetarian Diet

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet does not include meat. People who follow a vegetarian diet are called vegetarians. They do not eat animal meat, poultry, or fish. Many vegetarians also avoid other animal products such as gelatin, rennet (used to make some kinds of cheese), and animal fats. Vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products are called ovo-lacto vegetarians. People who do not eat any animal products are called vegans.

A well-planned vegetarian diet can be good for your health. By not eating meat, you eat less cholesterol and less saturated fat. This may lower your risk of heart disease, gallstones, stroke, and some types of cancer.

Will I get all of the nutrients I need?

All of the rules for a healthy diet are true for a vegetarian diet. You need to eat a variety of foods in the right amounts. You may have to work harder to get all of the nutrients you need if you eat no animal products at all.

A well planned vegetarian diet is safe. If it is too restricted or too high in sweets, sodas, and snack foods, it may be unhealthy. Even if you eat a lot of healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you may not get enough of some important nutrients. Here are some of the nutrients you need to be sure to get from your vegetarian diet.

  • Calcium: If you do not eat any milk products, the amount of calcium in your diet may be too low. Keep in mind that the calcium found in plant foods and even some fortified foods is not easy for the body to absorb. Calcium is absorbed better in smaller amounts throughout the day. Try to choose fortified foods with no more than 500 milligrams (mg) of calcium per serving. If you are a vegan, ask your healthcare provider how you can get enough calcium. You may need to take calcium supplements.
  • Iron: It’s harder for the body to absorb iron from plants than from meat, poultry, and fish. Eat foods that contain vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, and tomatoes, when you eat plant foods that have iron. Eating these foods together helps the body to absorb the iron better.
  • Zinc: Zinc is not as easy for the body to absorb from plant foods as it is from animal products. Because of this, you may need to eat more zinc than people who eat meat. Be sure to include good sources of zinc in your diet.
  • Vitamin B-2: Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, is found in green vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli. However, vegetables do not have as much vitamin B2 as milk products, eggs, meats, and liver. You may need a supplement to get all the vitamin B2 that your body needs.
  • Vitamin B-6: Also known as pyridoxine, vitamin B-6 is found in peas, beans, lentils, bananas, and fortified breads and cereals. Vegetarians usually get enough of this vitamin from their diet.
  • Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is found naturally only in animal products such as milk products and eggs. When you read food labels, look for the words cyanocobalamin or cobalamin in the ingredient list. These are the forms of Vitamin B-12 that are most easily absorbed.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D is added to soy, rice, and almond milk, yogurts, some cereals, and juices. The food label will tell you if a food is fortified with Vitamin D. Your skin makes vitamin D when it is exposed to sunshine, so spend some time outdoors. Ask your healthcare provider if you should take a vitamin D supplement to make sure that you are getting enough.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Include good sources of linolenic acid (omega 3) in your diet. Plant foods high in linolenic acid are flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, walnuts, soybeans, and soybean oil. Some margarines and nondairy milks are now fortified with omega-3s.
  • Protein: There are many plant sources of protein. Whole grains and vegetables are a healthy source of protein, but these foods have less protein than beans and nuts. Be sure to eat a variety of foods to get the right mix of proteins.

If I am breast-feeding, will my breast milk be healthy for my baby?

If you get enough nutrients from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and oils, you and your baby can have a healthy diet. You should include milk or other dairy products in your diet. You should also try to eat foods that have a high protein content, such as peanut butter, nuts, eggs, tofu, and legumes. These foods will help supply the protein and calcium your baby needs. Also make sure that you get enough zinc, iron, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.

Many healthcare providers advise staying on prenatal vitamins while breast-feeding. This can be very helpful for vegetarians. The main focus for healthy vegetarian breast milk is on vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats. Ask your healthcare provider if you need a B12 supplement. Your baby may need to take B12 as well.

Breast-fed babies should also take a vitamin D supplement. You can buy liquid multivitamin drops with vitamin D without a prescription. Ask your provider for a recommendation.

Breast-fed babies who are not yet getting solid food should have supplements of iron after the age of 4 to 6 months. This needed iron is provided by infant cereals if solid foods are started.

If you follow the above guidelines for getting enough nutrients from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and oils, you and your baby can have a healthy diet.

How do I know if I am eating a healthy diet?

If you are not getting enough vitamins or minerals, you may have symptoms such as:

  • Rashes
  • A painful, swollen tongue
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Pale skin
  • Trouble focusing
  • Trouble breathing

Check with your healthcare provider if you think you may not be getting all the nutrients you need.

Where can I get more information?

Some helpful Web sites are:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-03-10
Last reviewed: 2014-03-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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