Vegetarian diets are high in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and antioxidants, which are associated with decreased risk of chronic disease. Moreover, vegetarian diets are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than an omnivorous diet. Your vegetarian diet may suffer from nutritional pitfalls, however, unless you plan carefully. According to a 2009 position paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you may be lacking protein, vitamin D, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.
Past recommendations were to combine complementary vegetarian protein sources, such as rice and beans, within the same meal in order to obtain essential amino acids. Actually, you can eat a variety of these foods over the course of a day to get complete proteins, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Protein-rich foods include milk and soy milk, tofu, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin D is essential to bone health because it regulates calcium levels in the body. The body can manufacture vitamin D in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, but you can become deficient if your exposure to sunlight is limited. Vitamin D is found in a limited number of non-animal sources, including oils, fortified margarine, milk and breakfast cereals.
Iron is essential for red blood cell production, and its deficiency causes anemia. This mineral is a problem for vegetarians because iron in plants is not as efficiently absorbed as iron from animal foods. However, consuming foods rich in vitamin C along with plant-based iron sources can enhance its absorption. Vegetarian sources of iron include pulses, soy products, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits and plain dark chocolate.
Zinc is important for wound healing, normal growth and development. As is the case for iron, absorption of zinc from plant sources is lower than from animal sources, so vegetarians may need to consume more. Good sources include whole grains, nuts, legumes, soy products and cheese.
EPA and DHA
Diets devoid of fish, eggs or algae will be low in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid -- EPA -- and docosahexaenoic acid -- DHA. These nutrients are essential for brain and eye development and for cardiovascular health. The human body can convert linolenic acid — found in rapeseed, flax, walnuts and soy — to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is very low. Consume algae, fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals and supplements derived from microalgae.
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; American Dietetic Association
- Manual of Dietetic Practice, 4th Edition: T. Briony and J. Bishop