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During the summer months, I often have clients that toy around with the idea of becoming vegetarian, especially with all of the delicious produce available. Though a vegetarian diet can provide an adequate balance of nutrients that your body needs, it's important to recognize the key nutrients often found in a "traditional" diet and the plant-based dietary sources of these nutrients. It is also important to understand the varying degrees of vegetarianism.
What are the benefits of eating a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet is typically low saturated fat and cholesterol, as these nutrients are found in animal products. Health benefits of eating vegetarian include a possibly lower rate of of type II diabetes, lower rates of some types of cancer, lower rates of heart disease, and decreased risk for high blood pressure.
Protein: Despite the trend that meat often provides a majority of the protein in a traditional diet, protein needs can easily be met from plant-based sources. Having a variety of protein sources throughout the day will ensure that you are consuming enough essential amino acids. Sources of plant-based proteins include beans, nuts, dark-green leafy vegetables, tofu, seeds and many common foods, such as potatoes, corn and whole grain bread.
Iron: Beans, nuts, dark-green leafy vegetables, baked potatoes, dried fruits and iron-fortified breakfast cereals are good sources of iron. Eating foods rich in vitamin C such as orange juice or tomatoes while also eating iron-containing foods can help with iron absorption.
Calcium: Dark-green leafy vegetables, beans, figs, almonds, tofu, orange juice and fortified "milk substitute" beverages, such as soy milk, are excellent sources of calcium.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 comes primarily from animal-derived foods. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get adequate B12 from eggs and dairy products. Fortified foods, such as cereals or soy milk, can also provide vitamin B12. If you are unsure of how many B12 fortified foods you are consuming, you may want to consider taking a non-animal derived supplement.
Whether you've decided to become vegetarian for health reasons, religious reasons, dislike of meat, or compassion for animals, a vegetarian lifestyle can provide all known nutrient needs when a variety of foods are eaten. If you are considering becoming vegetarian but are unsure of where to begin, consider starting off by having one meatless meal per day or contacting a registered dietitian in your area to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrition for your specific health needs and conditions.
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