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Nutrition Education: Vegetarian Information

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Vegetarian diets are just as healthy as other diets and can meet all recommendations for nutrients. Following the food groups and eating a variety of foods and the right amount of foods is important for meeting calorie needs. Vegetarians may need to focus more on getting the right amounts of protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.

Types of Vegetarians

Vegan

Excludes all meat, fish, poultry, animal products such as dairy products, eggs, and honey, and animal-based products like soup bases, gelatin, and yeast.

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian

Excludes meat, fish, and poultry but includes dairy products, eggs, and egg products. This is the most popular form of vegetarianism in North America.

Lacto Vegetarian

Excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs but includes dairy products.

Ovo Vegetarian

Excludes meat, fish, poultry, and dairy but includes eggs.

Semi-Vegetarian

Excludes red meat but will occasionally eat fish or chicken.

Protein

If following a vegetarian diet, you are reducing your risk for several diseases including heart disease; however, it is important that your diet include adequate amounts of protein to ensure proper tissue development and adequate nutrition. If animal products are limited in your diet (only consuming milk, cheese, or eggs) or if your diet is completely plant/grain based, then it is important that you give your body enough and a variety of nutrients to build complete/complementary proteins to your diet.

Complete/complementary proteins are foods that by themselves do not contain all the essential amino acids, but when the foods are eaten together, they can make a complete protein.

According to the American Dietetic Association, "Complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same time...consumption of various sources of amino acids over the course of the day should ensure adequate protein."

Sources of Protein

If you consume a large variety of plant foods (legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, and fruits) and enough calories throughout the day, then the protein in your diet should be adequate.

This means eating at least (or at least aiming for higher levels of intake)

  • 2-4 servings from the fruit group;
  • 3-5 servings from the vegetable group;
  • 2-3 servings from the meat substitute group - beans, legumes, tofu, etc.;
  • 6-11 servings from the grain and cereal group. Eat a variety of whole grains.

A registered dietitian is the nutrition professional who is qualified to help you build a healthy and nutrient-complete vegetarian diet.

Nutrients in Food

If you are following a vegetarian diet, then there are certain nutrients that can be missing if your diet is not planned carefully.

Vitamin B12

Helps with nerve cell function and is primarily found in animal products.

Veggie sources: Eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt. If you are a strict vegan, then supplementation may be needed. Contact a registered dietitian for appropriate diet supplementation.

Vitamin B6

Helps the body make energy.

Semi-vegetarians: fish and white meat (poultry and pork).

Veggie sources: Bananas and whole grains.

Vitamin D

Helps the body absorb/transport calcium and is primarily found in meats, eggs, and milk. Exposure to sunlight will allow the body to produce some Vitamin D.

Veggie sources: Fortified foods, egg yolks, milk.

Calcium

Helps with bone density and healthy teeth and is primarily found in dairy products, halibut and salmon.

Veggie sources: Soy, cheese, yogurt, milk, fortified oatmeal, almonds, mustard greens, baked beans, oranges, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, fortified milk/dairy substitutes, fortified orange juice.

Iron

Helps in the production of red blood cells (Hemoglobin) and energy. Heme iron is found in animal products. This iron is absorbed by the body very efficiently. Non-heme iron is found in plant based foods. It is not as readily absorbed by the body.

Veggie sources: Spinach, kidney beans, potato baked with skin, enriched pasta and rice, brown rice, raisins.

Zinc

Promotes growth, muscle mass, and the development of taste. Zinc in animal foods is much better absorbed than zinc from plant foods.

Veggie sources: Whole grains, nuts, pumpkin seeds, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits consumed with other foods, egg yolks, milk products.

Magnesium

Contributes to bone health and overall body functioning.

Veggie sources: Milk and milk products, dairy foods, dark green leafy vegetables.