Nutrients A Vegetarian Should Worry About

We’ll walk through the basic types of vegetarianism and fill you in on which nutrients those with a meat-free diet need to pay special attention to.

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The term "vegetarian" can pretty broad and 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.

Vegetarian Basics

There are different types of vegetarians depending on what someone chooses to include in their diet. But all vegetarians include plant foods from the following categories:

  • Grains such as rice, wheat, oats, and millet
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes which include beans, peas, lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds like sesame and sunflower
Different Types

In addition to the basic food groups listed above, certain vegetarians may decide to include other foods in their diet. Here are the 3 basic types:

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

These categories aren’t exclusive and can overlap with one another. For example, if someone includes both dairy and eggs they’re considered a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Any combination is possible and the names can kind of get crazy!

If someone only includes the plant foods listed above (and no dairy, seafood or eggs), they’re considered a vegan (sometimes referred to as a "complete vegetarian") -- but more on them in the upcoming weeks.

Nutrients of Concern

Many folks worry that vegetarians are unable to eat a balanced diet and meet their nutritional needs. That’s not necessarily the case. 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 include milk and dairy products in their diet, then they must be sure to get their calcium for 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. It makes sense to add it to milk since it works with calcium to keep bones healthy. 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 may isn’t getting enough.
  • Iron: Although iron-deficiency anemia is the most common deficiencies in the U.S. (actually in the world), vegetarians don’t have a higher incidence of iron-deficiency as compared to the rest of the population. Vegetarians who do eat eggs and fish have a better source of iron, but iron can also be found in plant foods like fortified oatmeal, tofu, spinach, and beans.
  • Zinc: This mineral is found in large amounts in foods like 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.
TELL US: Do you follow a vegetarian diet?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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