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Vegetarian Diets and Organic Foods


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 Vegetarian Diets.

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 gelatin.
  • 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 have:6

  • Lower cholesterollevels.
  • Lower BMIs (body mass index).
  • Less risk of dying from coronary artery disease (CAD).
  • Less risk of getting high blood pressure.
  • Less risk of getting prostate or colorectal cancer.
  • Less risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

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 and rice.
  • 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.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 06, 2009
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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