The quality of any diet – inclusive of meat or not – depends on whether nutritionally-sound food choices are made. The term ‘vegetarian’ refers to people who steer clear of most or all animal-derived foods, including eggs and dairy. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, on the other hand, consume milk products and eggs, but exclude meat and seafood. Ovo-vegetarians include eggs, but do not eat meat, seafood or dairy. Lastly, pesco-vegetarians eat seafood, eggs and dairy, but not meat or poultry. Depending on what type of “vegetarian” you are, a carefully planned diet must include good sources of calcium, iron, zinc and B12:
Calcium: If you don’t eat dairy products, you should select calcium-fortified juices, soy milk and breakfast cereals. Other good sources of absorbable calcium include figs, fortified tofu, some beans, and certain green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and turnip greens.
Iron: The iron in plant foods, such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables and whole-grain breads is poorly absorbed.Luckily, vegetarians tend to eat produce that’s rich in vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron more efficiently.
Zinc: Meat is the richest source of bioavailable zinc. Since soy interferes with zinc absorption, it’s important to include whole grains, nuts, and beans such as black-eyed peas, pinto beans and kidney beans in your diet.
B12: This vitamin, also known as cyanocobalamin, is only found in animal products. While soy products may contain some B12, it is not in the active form. The recommended daily intake for male and female adults is 2.4µg/day, although percent daily values (% DV) on food labels are based on 6µg. Your body stores about 5 years of B12, after which a deficiency in this vitamin can be extremely detrimental to your health. Strict vegetarians should not ignore this nutrient. B12 is absorbed with the help of intrinsic factor (IF), which is produced in your stomach. If you’re 60 or older, the loss of IF and low stomach acid levels may lead to B12 deficiency, whether or not you adhere to a vegetarian diet. If the deficiency is due to the loss of IF, you may need an intramuscular B12 injection. If you’re younger, low B12 levels are more likely due to inadequate dietary intake and an oral vitamin supplement and careful food planning will help. Depending on what type of vegetarian you are, non-meat sources high in B12 include mollusks (e.g. clams), salmon, trout, tuna, egg, yogurt, American cheese and fortified cereal.