I have recently become a vegetarian. Although I do eat dairy products and eggs, I am concerned about getting enough protein, iron, and other nutrients in my diet without eating meat or depending on too much skim milk. What foods or vitamins do I need to supplement my diet?
Vegetarianism finally seems to have found a mainstream audience. People are making the connection that what goes in their mouths affects more than just their hips. In fact, eating a healthy diet that’s rich in plant-based foods, which are low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat, may be just what the cardiologist ordered.
But because vegetarians limit or eliminate animal foods, they need to make sure they meet their protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc needs. Since you are what the vegetarian world calls a lacto-ovovegetarian [that is, you eat dairy foods (lacto) and eggs (ovo), but not meat, fish, or poultry], it should be fairly easy for you to meet your nutritional needs.
For starters, it’s a cinch to get enough protein in a vegetarian diet if you’re eating enough calories and choosing from a wide variety of food groups such as whole grains, legumes (beans, split peas, and tofu), seeds, nuts, and vegetables.
Eggs are the top of the line when it comes to protein, but the yolks are also top heavy in dietary cholesterol: Keep them to three or four per week. On the other hand, have a field day with egg whites: They have no fat or cholesterol, but have slightly more than half of the protein of an entire egg.
Vitamins D and B12 are trickier to get into a strict vegetarian diet. Since vitamin B12 is found in animal foods, vegans (those who don’t eat any dairy or eggs), need to make sure they’re eating adequate amounts of breakfast cereal or soy milk that are fortified with B12. Or, they should take a vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supplement that provides no more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value. Even lacto-ovovegetarians can fall short on their vitamin B12 requirments. Click here for the lowdown.
Vitamin D may be a problem for people who can’t rely on sunshine to meet their body’s needs. Few foods contain large amounts of vitamin D naturally. You can kill three birds (vitamin D, vitamin B12, and calcium) with one stone by drinking skim milk. Two cups of milk will meet about two-thirds of some adults’ needs for calcium, almost all of their B12 requirements, and the entire recommended daily allowance for vitamin D. Older individuals will need additional sources. Click here for more info. On top of all that, milk also packs a protein punch. (Not bad for a beverage that provides less than 180 calories for a 16-ounce glass.)
Non-fat yogurt and lowfat cheese are also good sources of protein, calcium, and B12. Unfortunately, they’re vitamin D deficient because they’re not fortified like milk. Other calcium boasters are broccoli, Swiss chard, kale, and tofu processed with calcium.
That leaves iron and zinc. Eat a variety of iron-rich foods such as legumes, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, and fortified breads and cereals to meet your needs. Eating vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, and broccoli along with your meals will boost your body’s iron-absorbing ability. Foods that contain zinc include yogurt, tofu, whole grains, peas, nuts, and legumes.
A vegetarian diet isn’t far off the path of the infamous Food Guide Pyramid. You should be eating six to 11 daily servings from the bread, cereals, rice, and pasta group; three to five servings from the vegetable group; two to three servings from the fruit group; two to three servings from the dairy group; and two to three servings from the meat, fish, poultry, and meat alternative group. In your case, the only difference is that you will trade meat for eggs, beans, nuts, and peanut butter. Count half a cup of cooked beans, one egg, or two tablespoons of peanut butter as an ounce of meat (or about one-third of a serving from the meat group).
To make sure your diet is in great shape, consider meeting with a registered dietitian for a nutritional “check-up.” If your diet meets your nutritional needs, than a supplement probably isn’t necessary.