A vegetarian diet consists of eating plant-based foods while avoiding animal products. However, some vegetarians may also include eggs, cheese and yogurt, among other foods, in their diet.
Vegetarian diets can provide all the nutrients you need at any age, as well as some additional health benefits. Vegetarian diets often have lower levels of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than many meat-based diets, and higher intakes of fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. Vegetarian diets may lead to lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, healthier weight and less incidence of Type 2 diabetes, all of which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Vegetarians might want to familiarize themselves with the four food groups according to Canada's Food Guide. The food groups include: vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives and meat alternatives such as beans, soy, nuts and seeds. According to the guide, it is recommended that Canadians:
- Eat at least one dark green vegetable and one orange vegetable each day.
- Have vegetables and fruit more often than juice.
- Make at least half of your grain products whole grain each day.
- Drink skim, 1% or 2% milk each day.
- Have meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu often.
- Include a small amount of unsaturated fat each day.
- Satisfy your thirst with water.
My Food Guide by Health Canada allows you to build your own Food Guide with foods that you like. The wide selection of foods from each of the four food groups, including multicultural food choices can help you plan your meals and snacks. www.myfoodguide.ca
As with any food program, it is important to do some planning to meet nutrient needs. Here's what you may want to consider:
Plant-based foods can provide all the protein you need. Protein-rich plant foods include:
- all soy products such as tofu, tempeh and beverages
- cooked beans, peas and lentils
- peanuts and peanut butter
- most nuts and seeds
It is no longer necessary to combine proteins for example, beans with grains, in the same meal in order to maximize protein absorption. Other protein options include eggs (also rich in zinc and iron) and milk (high in zinc). Whole grains and vegetables also provide protein and are great sources of minerals.
Vegetarians are at no more risk of iron deficiency than meat eaters. While the version of iron found in meat (heme-iron) is more readily absorbed than the non-heme iron found in plant sources, absorption can be enhanced by combining non-heme iron options with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli or berries. Good plant sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans or legumes, iron-enriched products (check labels), nutritional yeast and dried fruit. An example may be a romaine lettuce salad with mandarin oranges.
Calcium and vitamin D
Calcium is important for strong bones and vitamin D is necessary for your body to be able to absorb it. Dairy products, almonds, sesame seeds, dark-green vegetables (such as broccoli, bok choy and kale), and black strap molasses contain calcium. Other products are fortified with calcium, including soy and rice beverages, tofu and orange juice (check the ingredients). Vitamin D is often added to milk and some yogurt (but not cheese), soy and rice beverages, and fortified margarine. While sunlight allows us to produce our own vitamin D through our skin, it is typically not sufficient during Canadian winters. As a result, these supplemented sources are important, especially for babies, children and older adults. Canada’s Food Guide recommends for men and women over 50 years of age to take a daily supplement of Vitamin D of 400 IU.
Vitamin B 12
This vitamin is necessary for cell division and blood formation. It can be found in fortified cereals, soy and rice beverages, and some types of nutritional yeast. It's important to read labels to ensure you are getting enough B 12. If you are vegetarian or vegan, consult your health professional about a B 12 supplement if you are not sure you're getting enough from your diet.
You don't have to be a vegetarian to reap the health benefits from eating more plant foods and less meat.
Last reviewed: April 2011.