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If you think you’ll be missing out on a host of nutrients if you eat vegetarian or vegan, think again: Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate if they are appropriately planned, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Studies show that vegetarians and vegans tend to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes than non-vegetarians, so they get more fiber, phytochemicals, potassium, vitamins C and E, and folate and less saturated fat and dietary cholesterol than non-vegetarians.
Additionally, these diets are linked with lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, better blood glucose levels, and lower risks of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that vegetarian diets were associated with a 22 percent reduced risk of colorectal cancer in comparison to non-vegetarian diets.
Types of Plant-Centered Diets
A vegan diet eliminates all forms of animal products, including meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and honey. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet restricts all animal flesh, including meat, poultry, and seafood, but allows dairy products and eggs. A pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that includes seafood but no meat or poultry. Finally, a flexitarian diet is primarily plant-based but may include small amounts of meat, fish, or poultry. All of these dietary patterns have been linked with health benefits.
Get Started on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
The first step toward a vegetarian or vegan diet is to add more whole plant foods to your diet, including pulses, soy foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits. Pulses are a category of legume that includes a variety of beans (such as kidney, pinto, and black beans), peas, and lentils. Also, limit your intake of prepared foods, fast foods, and sweets: French fries and sugary desserts may be vegan, but they are high in calories and low in nutrients.
Ensure a Complete Diet
Make sure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need from whichever diet you choose. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B12 and D, zinc, and iron can be difficult to get in adequate amounts from plant foods alone.
“Omega-3s are a heart-healthy fat found in avocados, walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, chia seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna. Vitamin D can be found in egg yolks, cheese, mushrooms, and fatty fish, as well as in fortified non-dairy milks, cereals, and orange juice,” says Jenna Rosenfeld, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, a registered dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.
Zinc and iron are abundant in pulses, nuts, and seeds.
The most difficult nutrient to obtain when on a vegan diet is vitamin B12. “Vegans need to consume B12-fortified foods, including cereals, non-dairy milks, meat substitutes, and nutritional yeast. If you’re following a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, consuming milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs will help you get enough vitamin B12,” says Rosenfeld.
If you choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, ask your doctor to order blood tests to check for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If you are deficient, your doctor may recommend taking supplements.