Originally Published: November 1, 2008 10:47 p.m.
In a very general sense, a vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat. But that definition is too simple. There are several kinds of vegetarian diets:
Some vegetarians eat milk products, but not eggs or meat.
Vegans eat only plant foods and don't eat food that comes from any animal
Many people are semi-vegetarian, eating fish or poultry by not red meat.
But regardless of the type of vegetarian diet you follow, you'll get all of the nutrients you need as long as you pay special attention to the following:
Calcium. If you don't get your calcium from milk products, you need to eat a lot of other calcium-rich foods. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk and orange juice are good choices, as are certain legumes and leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and tofu.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D is important to keep bones strong. Vegetarians who don't eat milk products can use fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals. Your body can also make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on a regular basis.
Iron. Our bodies don't absorb iron from plant foods as well as they absorb iron from meats, so it's important for vegetarians to regularly eat iron-rich foods. Vegetarian iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products.
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 comes from animal sources only. If you are a vegan, you'll need to rely on food that is fortified with this vitamin (for example, soy milk and breakfast cereals) or take supplements. This is especially important for vegan women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Like everyone else, vegetarians also need to make sure they get the following nutrients:
Protein. When considering a vegetarian diet, many people worry that they will not get enough protein. But eating a wide variety of foods, especially legumes and grains, will give you the protein you need.
Omega 3 fatty acids. If you don't eat fish or eggs, you need to find other sources of omega 3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil and canola oil.
Zinc. Vegetarians don't usually have a problem getting enough zinc if they eat lots of foods that are good sources of zinc, including whole-grain breads, cooked dried beans and lentils, soy foods and vegetables.