Vegetarianism is a healthy way of life for many. Some research shows vegetarians live longer, are leaner and their diets include more fiber and disease fighting antioxidants. There are four main categories of vegetarians and a fourth one for those who just don’t want to go all the way: Flexitarians. Here’s a brief description of all of these categories in descending order of how completely they follow a vegetarian diet in addition to what nutrients they need to be especially cognizant of consuming:
Flexitarian – a Flexitarian is someone who is a semi-Vegetarian. They choose vegetarian meals the majority of the time but sometimes fit in poultry or turkey. Most Flexitarians avoid red meat completely. Flexitarians are not really considered vegetarians but, their diet still consists mainly of plant-based foods. For more information, check out this book on the Flexitarian diet.
Pesco-vegetarian – this diet includes fish, eggs and dairy but excludes all meat and poultry. The main nutrient of concern for a pesco-vegetarian is iron. However, if you eat fish, opt for oysters and clams for your heme iron (the most well absorbed type of iron).
Lacto-ovo vegetarian – this person excludes meat, fish and poultry but eats eggs and dairy products. With good planning (and by including eggs and dairy) the lacto-over vegetarian can easily meet most of their nutrient needs (though they may fall short on iron, copper and zinc).
Lacto-vegetarian – meat, poultry, fish and eggs are excluded but milk and milk products (butter, cheese, yogurt) are allowed.
Vegan – this is the most strict type of vegetarian. Vegans exclude all animal flesh as well as eggs and dairy.
The top vegetarian sources of commonly missing nutrients:
Iron – vegetarians who avoid fish need about twice the amount of iron as non-vegetarians. Why? Vegetarian source of iron (non-heme iron) are poorly absorbed so you need more. Choose from fortified cereals, instant oatmeal, soybeans, lentils, beans (kidney, navy, lima, pinto), tofu, spinach, and black-eyed peas. Consume your iron rich foods with a source of vitamin C such as tomatoes and citrus fruits to enhance the absorption of non-iron. You can also cook in an iron skillet (add foods rich in vitamin C to your skillet meal).
Iodine – this forgotten nutrient is found in iodized salt. If you avoid salt, eat kelp.
Calcium & Vitamin D – dairy is your best bet. If you avoid dairy, choose calcium and vitamin D fortified soy or rice milk. Vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency is emerging as a huge issue in all people, vegetarian or not.
Vitamin B 12 – is found in animal flesh and animal products. Therefore, vegans are very likely to fall short on this crucial vitamin and should therefore focus on consuming fortified cereals (check for B12) and fortified tofu or, talk to your physician about taking a supplement.
Zinc – is found mostly in some types of seafood and meat. For vegans, opt for fortified breakfast cereals, cashews, almonds, kidney beans and peas.
Copper – sesame seeds, cashews, crimini mushrooms, cooked soybeans, cooked barley, sunflower seeds, cooked tempeh, garbanzo beans, navy beans.
Omega-3 fats – are mainly found in fatty fish. If you avoid fish, opt for walnuts, soybean oil, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, dark green leafy vegetables and canola oil. These contain the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid.
In general, the more you cut out of your diet, the more diligent you must be to ensure an adequate nutrient intake. It can be done, though sometimes not through food alone and therefore supplements are necessary. Vegans, in particular, should consider supplementing with a B complex (which includes B12), iodine rich foods, vitamin D and calcium or consider a multivitamin which will help make up for dietary shortfalls.