Korean Pancakes - photo by Maggie Hoffman shown cropped

Planning Healthful Vegetarian Diets

Nourishing and beneficial vegetarian
Lettuce Wrap

Photo credit: Brenna Huff on Unsplash

Properly planned vegetarian diets can be nourishing and offer many health benefits.  Research has shown that vegetarian diets may reduce risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, as well as certain types of cancers.  The main components of a vegetarian meal pattern that may lower these health risks include fiber-rich, plant-based foods including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as healthful fats such as olive and canola oil.

There are several types of vegetarian diets, from vegan which contains only plant-based foods, to variations of plant and animal-based foods.  Vegetarian diets that combine both plant and animal foods are: lacto, which includes dairy; ovo, which includes eggs; and lacto-ovo, which includes both dairy and eggs.  The nutritional profile of each type is based on the composition of the food and beverages consumed.  Therefore, it is important for persons who consume a vegetarian diet to make sure they are getting adequate calories and essential nutrients for optimal health.

Vegetarians may be at greater risk than non-vegetarians of developing nutrient deficiencies due to variations in food patterns. Some key nutrients vegetarians should be mindful of include calcium, iron, protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and zinc.  Therefore, careful planning of a calorie-appropriate, well-balanced meal plan that includes a variety of foods is important.

Enriched vs. Fortified

Depending on the type of vegetarian diet, supplementation with fortified or enriched foods to ensure consumption of essential nutrients may be required, in particular vitamin B12.  Enriched and fortified foods are important contributors to our food supply.  They contain added nutrients to increase their nutritional value. “Enriched” refers to the replacement of nutrients lost during processing.  For example, nutrients returned to white flour after the milling process.  “Fortified” refers to the addition of nutrients that were not present naturally in the food.  For instance, the addition of vitamin D to milk and calcium and vitamin D to orange juice.

While research has shown that well-balanced vegetarian diets are healthful, if not planned properly they can contain excess calories and fat as well as inadequate amounts of essential nutrients.  It is recommended to consult with your health care provider, preferably a registered dietitian, before beginning a vegetarian diet.

Click here to visit the UF/IFAS Extension website for more information on vegetarian diets.