Ask Food: How can a vegetarian satisfy nutrient needs?

Q: I am a recent convert to vegetarianism. How can I get all the necessary nutrients without meat?

A: The term "vegetarian" can mean different things to different people. We'll walk through the basic types and fill you in on which nutrients those with a meat-free diet need to pay special attention to.

All vegetarians include plant foods from the following categories:

  • -- Grains such as rice, wheat, oats and millet
  • -- Fruits and vegetables
  • -- Legumes, which include beans, peas, lentils
  • --Nuts and seeds

Certain vegetarians may decide to include other foods in their diet. Here are the three basic types:

  • -- Lacto-vegetarians include milk and dairy products.
  • -- Ovo-vegetarians include eggs.
  • -- Pesco-vegetarians include fish and seafood.

There are certain nutrients that are of special concern, but if you know which foods to eat, then you're in good shape. Here are some nutrients that need special attention.

Calcium: If a vegetarian doesn't use milk and other dairy products, then she must be sure to get calcium from alternate sources or think about taking a supplement (especially women who are at risk for osteoporosis). Dark leafy greens, fortified juices, almonds, fortified milk alternatives and sardines with soft bones are all sources of the mineral.

Vitamin D: This vitamin isn't found in many foods and that's why it's fortified in milk. Other food sources of vitamin D include fish-liver oils and egg yolks, both of which aren't on every vegetarian's list of allowable foods. Luckily, you can also get your daily dose of vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. Supplements are sometimes prescribed by doctors if they feel the person isn't getting enough.

Iron: Although iron-deficiency anemia is the most common deficiency in the U.S., vegetarians don't have a higher incidence of iron-deficiency as compared to the rest of the population. Vegetarians who eat eggs and fish have a better source of iron, but iron also can be found in fortified oatmeal, tofu, spinach and beans.

Zinc: This mineral is found in large amounts in shellfish (like oysters), meat and poultry. Vegetarians who don't eat shellfish should be sure to take in enough plant sources including beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, nuts and fortified cereals.

Courtesy Toby Amidor on

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