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Vegetarianism and Nutrition

A meatless diet can be healthy, but vegetarians -- especially vegans -- need to make sure they're getting enough vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns of the risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies in vegetarians and vegans. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia and blindness. It can also cause muscle weakness, tingling, and numbness. To counteract the increased risk, vegans should include B12 supplements, or fortified cereals and veggie burgers. Stay tuned for more information, but B12 has been found in varying amounts in mushrooms, particularly in the outer peel.

Vegans and ovo-vegetarians, who eat eggs but not dairy, need to find foods (dark green vegetables, tofu, edamame, soy nuts, butternut squash) or supplements that compensate for the missing calcium from their diets. Absorbable calcium is critical to protect against osteoporosis, or thinning bones.

Is a Vegan Diet Safe During Pregnancy?

The nutrition warnings are a bit more urgent for pregnant and lactating women who are vegan. Having a vitamin B12 deficiency, particularly, has been shown to impair neurological development in infants nursed by vegetarian mothers. A lack of vitamin D and calcium also can result in bone demineralization in breastfeeding women.

Similarly, children under age 5 who are reared on vegetarian and vegan diets can suffer impaired growth. That's because of a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can also result in anemia and rickets. Consult a registered dietitian who can help design a well-planned diet that can meet all the nutritional needs.

Key Nutrients for Vegetarians and Vegans

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers dietary guidelines for vegetarians on its web site. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is another good source for dietary recommendations.

Regardless of the kind of meat-free diet practiced, vegetarians should focus on getting enough protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, riboflavin, alpha-linolenic acid, and vitamin D.

Here are some ways to incorporate these nutrients into a vegetarian diet:

  • Protein: Choose tofu, edamame, tempeh, veggie burgers with 5 grams of protein or more, beans and other legumes, nuts, nut butters, eggs, and higher-protein whole grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and kamut.
  • Iron: Eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, soy-based foods, dried prunes, dried apricots, nuts, beans, legumes, and fortified whole wheat bread are good choices.
  • Calcium, which builds bone, is plentiful in cheese, yogurt, milk, edamame, tofu, almonds, sesame tahini, calcium-fortified orange juice, and dark green leafy vegetables like collard greens, spinach, and bok choy.
  • Zinc, which boosts the immune system, is ample in soybeans, soy milk, veggie "meats," eggs, cheese and yogurt, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, lentils, black-eyed peas, split peas, and wheat germ.
  • Vitamin B12: Soy-based beverages, some breakfast cereals, fortified veggie "meats," and (potentially) mushrooms are all good sources.
  • Riboflavin: Almonds, fortified cereals, cow's milk, yogurt, mushrooms, and soy milk are riboflavin-rich foods.
  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (Omega-3): Canola oil, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, soybeans, and tofu are good choices.

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