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Nutrition Library: Healthy Eating

Vegetarian Diets

It's wise to take precautions when adopting diets that entirely exclude animal flesh or dairy products. "The more you restrict your diet, the more difficult it is to get all the nutrients you need," says Marilyn Stephenson, R.D., of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "To be healthful, vegetarian diets require very careful, proper planning. Nutrition counseling can help you get started on a diet that is nutritionally adequate."

Replacing Animal Sources of Nutrients

Vegetarians who eat no meat, fish, poultry, or dairy foods face the greatest risk of nutritional deficiency. Nutrients most likely to be lacking and some non-animal sources are:

  • Vitamin B12--fortified soy milk and cereals

  • Vitamin D--fortified margarine and sunshine

  • Calcium--tofu, broccoli, seeds, nuts, kale, bok choy, legumes (peas and beans), greens, calcium-enriched grain products, and lime-processed tortillas

  • Iron--legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, whole grains, and iron-fortified cereals and breads, especially whole-wheat (absorption is improved by vitamin C, found in citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, peppers, dark-green leafy vegetables, and potatoes with skins)

  • Zinc-- whole grains (especially the germ and bran), whole-wheat bread, legumes, nuts, and tofu.

Combine legumes with grains

Combine legumes such as black-eyed peas, chickpeas, peas, peanuts, lentils, sprouts, and black, broad, kidney, lima, mung, navy, pea, and soybeans with grains such as rice, wheat, corn, rye, bulgur, oats, millet, barley, and buckwheat.

The American Dietetic Association recommends:

  • Minimizing intake of less nutritious foods such as sweets and fatty foods

  • Choosing whole or unrefined grain products instead of refined products

  • Choosing a variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, including good sources of vitamin C to improve iron absorption

  • Choosing low-fat varieties of milk products, if they are included in the diet

  • Avoiding excessive cholesterol intake by limiting eggs to two or three yolks a week

  • For vegans, using properly fortified food sources of vitamin B12, such as fortified soy milks or cereals, or taking a supplement

  • For infants, children and teenagers, ensuring adequate intakes of calories and iron and vitamin D, taking supplements if needed

  • Consulting a registered dietitian or other qualified nutrition professional, especially during periods of growth, breast-feeding, pregnancy, or recovery from illness

  • If exclusively breast-feeding premature infants or babies beyond 4 to 6 months of age, giving vitamin D and iron supplements to the child from birth or at least by 4 to 6 months, as your doctor suggests

  • Taking iron and folate (folic acid) supplements during pregnancy.

(Reprinted with permission from the United States Department of Health and Human Services)

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