Some people choose to follow a vegetarian diet, which means they
eat mostly plant-based foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and
seeds). For more information, see the topic
There are several
different forms of vegetarian diets:
- Vegans, or total vegetarians, eat only plant
foods. They do not eat red meat, poultry, fish, milk products, eggs, or other
foods that come from animals, such as honey and
- Lacto-vegetarians include milk products-such as milk,
cheese, and yogurt-in their diet.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians include
milk products and eggs in their diets.
- Semi-vegetarians may include
poultry and fish in their diets, but they do not eat red meat.
If properly planned, vegetarian diets are healthy and
can provide all the nutrients a person needs. As a group, vegetarians
When considering a vegetarian diet, many people are
concerned that they will not
get enough protein. This nutrient is made of building blocks called
amino acids. Although the human body can make some of
these amino acids, nine of them (the essential amino acids) must be obtained
from food. Soy foods and animal sources of
protein (milk, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood)
contain all the essential amino acids in the amounts our bodies need.
Most plant foods contain the essential amino acids in varying amounts, so
vegetarians need to eat a variety of plant foods to make sure they get enough
of all nine essential amino acids. For example, legumes (cooked dried beans,
dried peas, and lentils) are low in sulfur-containing amino acids (such as
methionine), but they are high in another amino acid called lysine. Grains are
just the opposite. So if you eat both foods during the course of a day, you can
get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
When the amino
acids from two or more foods add up to make a complete protein, those foods are
called "complementary proteins." Examples of complementary proteins are:
- Beans and tortillas.
- Black beans
- Chili and corn bread.
- Pita bread with
hummus (ground garbanzo beans and sesame seed paste).
You do not need to consciously combine these foods at
every meal. Eating them throughout the course of a day will provide your body
with adequate protein.
Protein is not the only nutrient of
concern in a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians also need to make sure they are
getting the following nutrients:
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found only in foods
from animal sources, such as milk, eggs, and meat. Vegans either need to eat
foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as fortified soy milk) or take a
supplement that contains vitamin B12.
Iron. Vegetarian iron sources include cooked dry
beans, leafy green vegetables, and iron-fortified grain products. Iron from
plant foods is not absorbed as well as iron from meats, so it is important for
vegetarians to regularly eat iron-rich foods. Eating foods that contain vitamin
C will improve the absorption of iron from a meal.
Calcium. Vegetarians who do not use milk or milk
products need to get calcium from other sources. Soy milk and orange juice
fortified with calcium are good sources. Other
nonmilk sources of calcium include seeds, nuts, and
certain green vegetables.
Zinc. Zinc from plant foods is poorly absorbed,
so it is important for vegetarians to get enough zinc. Good sources of zinc
include leavened whole grains (such as whole wheat bread), legumes (beans and
lentils), soy foods, and vegetables.
Vitamin D. Vegetarians who do not use milk or
milk products may not get enough
vitamin D. But soy milk is often fortified with
vitamin D, as are some cereals. Your body can also make vitamin D when exposed
to sunlight on a regular basis.
Supplements may be needed if you don't consume a
source of vitamin D and don't get adequate sunlight.