A person may be at risk of certain nutritional deficiencies when making the switch to a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet.
The specific nutrients that a person may be lacking will depend largely on the type of vegetarian diet that they eat.
For instance, a person who still eats dairy, fish, eggs, or a limited amount of meat may not have any issues with nutritional deficiencies. Conversely, people who follow vegan diets may need to supplement with vitamins and minerals, depending on their dietary intake and restrictions.
Some of the nutrients that are most likely to be lacking include:
Most people get their protein from meat, fish, or poultry. Lacto, ovo, and lacto-ovo vegetarians can get protein from both plant and animal sources. People who follow a vegan diet will not get protein from animal products. Some substitutes can include:
- certain grains, such as quinoa
- nut and seed butters
Iron is another nutrient that is present in red meats and other animal-based products. However, a person can get iron from other sources, such as:
- whole grain wheat
Calcium is primarily in milk and other dairy products. Some potential replacements for people following a vegetarian diet that does not include dairy include:
- fortified cereals
- collard greens
- fortified plant milk, such as soy or rice milk
The body produces vitamin D when the skin gets direct exposure to sunlight. However, certain factors can make it difficult to get enough vitamin D in this way. For example, in many countries, there is not much sun during the winter months, and people tend to cover up.
As the dietary sources of vitamin D are mostly animal products, vitamin D supplements are the best way for many vegetarians and vegans to get consistent, absorbable vitamin D.
Zinc is another nutrient that is important for a person’s body. Many animal-based foods are high in zinc, including meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. However, there are also plant-based sources of zinc, such as:
- soy products
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are present in fish, such as salmon. These healthful fats are important for overall health, especially brain health.
Although plant-based omega-3 fatty acids also occur naturally in chia seeds, algal oil, and flax, these are a type called alpha-linolenic acids, which the body has a limited ability to convert to active forms. Therefore, a person may wish to look for fortified products or talk to their doctor about omega-3 supplements.
Vitamin B-12 is important for many functions in the body, including red blood cell production. A vegetarian can obtain vitamin B-12 from:
- eggs and milk, if they are following a vegetarian diet that includes these foods
- certain fortified cereals
- fortified plant milk
- nutritional yeast
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