Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario on October 11, 2013


Vegetarian Resource Group; Virginia Messina, MPH, RD; Vesanto Melina, MS, RD; Ann Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, FADA; A New Feed Guide for North American Vegetarians; U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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Video Transcript

Carolyn O'Neil: Let's see. I think I'm going to get the stir fried tofu in ginger sauce.

Kathleen Zelman: Sounds good. And I'm going to go for the southern polenta napoleon, doesn't that sound wonderful? Hi, I'm Kathleen Zelman, WebMD's Director of Nutrition. And I'm here at Cafe Sunflower, a vegetarian restaurant in Atlanta, and joining me is registered dietitian Carolyn O'Neil. And we're here to talk about the nutritional needs of the growing number of people in our society who are choosing to follow some type of vegetarian diet.

Carolyn O'Neil: You know, it's true Kathleen, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, nearly 3% of all Americans consider themselves vegetarians. That's millions of people.

Kathleen Zelman: And it can be a very healthy lifestyle because most vegetarians eat primarily plant foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and disease preventing phytonutrients. In fact, studies show that vegetarians often weigh less, have less body fat, and have a reduced risk for heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate or colon cancer.

SPEAKER 1: Hi ladies, how are you today?

Carolyn O'Neil: There are so many health benefits, but because the vegetarian diet can exclude a wide range of foods, there's a danger of missing some important nutrients, including protein, calcium, iron, vitamin D, and B12, and the mineral zinc, to be exact. So to avoid these nutrient shortfalls, it really takes some careful planning and possibly adding fortified foods or supplements to your diet.

SPEAKER 1: We also have two vegan soups today.

Kathleen Zelman: But before you can identify the possible nutrient shortfalls, you need to understand about the different types of vegetarians.

SPEAKER 2: I eat vegetables and I eat fruit, I eat brown rice and other grains. I also do eat dairy and eggs, but I don't eat any red meat or pork.

SPEAKER 1: Stir fry tofu with ginger sauce.

Kathleen Zelman: She's a flexitarian, a newly coined term for anyone who eats mostly plant foods with some animal products. Flexitarians don't usually need any kind of supplementation unless they avoid whole food groups like dairy. So if you eat a wide variety of food, the diet can provide all the nutrients you need.

SPEAKER 3: I don't eat any meat or fish, but I do eat dairy and eggs as well.

SPEAKER 4: That describes me too.

Carolyn O'Neil: These ladies are lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning they add dairy or "lacto," and eggs, "ovo," to their diets.

Kathleen Zelman: Many vegetarians are vegan, which means they only eat plant food. No animal products like meat, fish, dairy, poultry, or eggs. However, eating only plant based food like this requires even more careful planning to get all the nutrients needed for good health. Let's start with protein.

Carolyn O'Neil: Being vegetarian does not mean your diet will be lacking in protein, but plants have incomplete proteins. So you'll need to eat a wide variety of beans, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and seeds so that your body will have all of the amino acids it needs to make complete proteins and stay healthy.

Kathleen Zelman: OK. Let's move on and talk about calcium next. It's not only critical for bone development, but also muscle functioning and blood clotting. So any vegetarian who doesn't consume dairy products needs to be very careful to eat plenty of dark green, leafy veggies like okra, broccoli, mustard greens, and kale. You can also get calcium in soy bean, nut, calcium fortified products like tofu, soy milk, and orange juice, or you can simply take a calcium supplement.

Carolyn O'Neil: That's right. And you can't talk calcium without talking about vitamin D because calcium can't properly be absorbed by the body without adequate levels of vitamin D. They work together. You can get vitamin D from the sun, but absorption varies depending on where you live, your age, and the color of your skin and whether you're using a sunscreen. Dietary sources are limited to vitamin D fortified milk, cod liver oil, and some other fish. So most people benefit from a vitamin D supplement, vegetarian or not.

Kathleen Zelman: Another nutrient that may be best supplied by supplement is vitamin B12. That's because most good dietary sources of B12 come from animal products. Fish, meat, eggs, and dairy.

Carolyn O'Neil: Fortified cereals, yeast, and some nondairy drinks are often fortified with vitamin B12. Or you can purchase vegan products that contain vitamin B12. And that's great because it's critical to the development of red blood cells and a healthy nervous system.

Kathleen Zelman: And speaking of red blood cells, let's move on to iron. Plants contain a form of iron that's not as well absorbed as that from animal products. So vegans need to make sure they get enough iron each day. They need 14 milligrams per day for men and post-menopausal women, and 33 milligrams per day for women prior to menopause.

Carolyn O'Neil: And the good news is that dried beans, dried fruit, and dark green leafy vegetables are excellent sources of iron and are especially well absorbed when eaten with foods high in vitamin C. Fortunately, vegetarian diets are often high in vitamin C because of all the fruits and vegetables.

Kathleen Zelman: There are two more critical nutrients we need to mention for vegetarians. That is zinc and Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3s help protect us from heart disease and a whole host of other conditions. And they are routinely found in fish, but you can also find them in flax seed, walnuts, tofu, soybeans, and canola oil. Zinc is a mineral that's essential for wound healing and a healthy immune system. Meat, poultry, and fortified cereals are all good sources, but vegetarians can find it in dried beans, nuts, and whole grains. Vegetarians may need as much as 50% more because zinc is not absorbed as well from plant foods.

Carolyn O'Neil: That's why taking a zinc supplement or a once daily multivitamin is important to fill in the nutritional gap.

Kathleen Zelman: So if you're a vegetarian, or even thinking about becoming one, be sure to carefully plan your diet to make sure you meet all your nutritional needs. All this talk about food is making me hungry.

Carolyn O'Neil: Did you see the desserts?

Kathleen Zelman: For WebMD, I'm Kathleen Zelman.

Carolyn O'Neil: And I'm Carolyn O'Neil.

Kathleen Zelman: Here's to your health. Yeah, I'm going to that.