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Vegetarians come in all shapes and sizes. Some vegetarians choose their diet because of ethical concerns, others for religious reasons, others for the environment and still other vegetarians are thinking about their health. The three major types of vegetarians include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish or poultry, but they do eat dairy and egg products.
  • Lacto vegetarians avoid meat, fish, poultry and eggs but continue to eat milk and dairy products.
  • Vegans avoid all animal products: from meat, fish and poultry to eggs and dairy.

A vegetarian diet can be beneficial to your health, if you remember to balance your nutrients and compensate for the vitamins and minerals lost through the omission of meat. Because vegetarians tend to avoid high-fat and high-cholesterol meat products, there is the possibility for a lowered risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and high blood pressure. The key to getting the most benefits from a vegetarian diet is in remembering balance and compensation. Going vegetarian doesn’t mean eating spaghetti without meatballs and more salads. You’ll need to consider your options, substitute your meat for nutrient and protein-containing alternatives and eat extra legumes, vegetables and fruits.

By cutting out meat products, you’ll also cut out some basic and important nutrients from your diet. For each nutrient you lose in a plant-based diet, there is an alternative. Sometimes, it will take extra effort to find or prepare that alternative, but if you want to be a healthy vegetarian, these alternatives will have to become a natural part of your every day diet.

  • Protein: Protein is the most obvious lost nutrient in a vegetarian diet. Protein helps your tissues repair themselves; builds your skin, hair and nails; and it’s a vital element in the function of your organs. The good news is that you can get the same amount of important protein in your diet by eating enough plant proteins. These plant proteins have the right amount of essential amino acids that make up protein, but you’ll need to make sure you have enough variety and an adequate amount in your diet. Plus, many meatless products are soy-based and contain adequate protein. You can always get your protein from legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains and lentils.
  • Vitamin B-12: Many vegetarians know about protein, but forget about B-12. And you can only get B-12 naturally from meat. Vitamin B-12 allows your body to produce red blood cells—a key to preventing anemia. You can find an adequate source of vitamin B-12 in cereals that have been fortified, some soy drinks and a supplement. Don’t overlook B-12, especially as a woman, who is particularly at risk for developing anemia.
  • Iron: Iron is similar to vitamin B-12 in that it is a crucial component of red blood cells and prevents anemia. The richest sources of iron are red meat, liver and egg yolk. If you’re a vegetarian, you see the potential here. In fact, most vegetarians have lower iron levels than non-vegetarians. So, that means taking extra care to include iron in your diet. Iron can be found in dried beans, spinach and dried fruits as well as enriched foods and supplements, if necessary. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, so upping your intake of citrus, tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage while you eat iron sources will improve your iron levels.
  • Zinc: Zinc is present in most enzymes, and helps to build up proteins. You need zinc for the basic functions of growth and development. You can find zinc in grains, nuts and legumes. If you eat shellfish, you’ll get an excellent source of zinc. Soy products and nuts also contain zinc. If you take a zinc supplement, make sure it has less than 15 to 18 mcg. Too much zinc isn’t good for your health, either.
  • Calcium: If you cut out dairy products, you are in danger of low calcium intake, which can lead to osteoporosis and other health problems. Find meat substitutes enriched with calcium, eat broccoli, kale and collard and learn about calcium supplements if you need to.

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