Side Effects of Switching to a Vegetarian Diet

Cheerful woman eating vegetables
A vegetarian diet comes with a lot of health and environmental benefits, but there are a few side effects. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Albert Einstein once wrote, "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." Although Einstein's words remain as true today as when he penned them in 1930, research has shown that there are a few concerns for those who choose to go meatless.

Anemia

Close-up of young woman sitting on sofa with hand touching head
Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness and dizziness. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

One of the main concerns for those switching to a vegetarian diet is anemia. The most common type, iron deficiency anemia, occurs when a person isn't getting enough iron in her diet. Iron is essential to the creation of hemoglobin in the blood which, in turn, carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's other organs. Women are more prone to the condition than men, and pregnant women, especially, need enough iron for themselves and their unborn babies. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness and dizziness. Because meat, eggs, poultry, fish and dairy products are the primary dietary sources for iron, vegetarians need to make sure that they are getting enough. A balanced vegetarian diet that includes plenty of green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, dried fruits such as apricots, raisins and prunes, and tofu will provide enough iron for most people. If you are concerned that you aren't getting enough iron in your diet, your doctor can perform a simple blood test to find out.

Protein Deficiency

Man wearing apron and cooking food
Most vegetarians who eat a balanced diet will have no problem meeting their daily protein requirements. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of cells in the human body. Although protein is usually associated with meat-based foods, it is also found in a number of others including peas, rices, nuts and soy products such as tofu and tempeh. Contrary to popular belief, food combining is not necessary for vegetarians seeking to include enough protein in their diets. Ovo-lacto vegetarians -- those who refrain from meat but still eat dairy products and eggs -- often tend to overload on high-fat options such as cheese to get enough protein in their diets, but a better option, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to build meals around low-fat, protein-rich foods such as lentils, beans and rice. Most vegetarians who eat a balanced diet will have no problem meeting their daily protein requirements.

Osteoporosis

It is estimated that one out of five American women over age 50 has osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs when the body does not form enough new bone over time. Getting enough calcium in the diet -- at least 1,200 milligrams per day -- is crucial to the development of new bone in adults. Major dietary sources for calcium include milk, cheese and yogurt, but vegetarians can also find it in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach or collard greens and in soy products such as soymilk and tofu. Calcium supplements are also readily available and should be taken with vitamin D to assist with absorption.

Vitamin B-12 Deficiency

Father sitting with daughter (7-9) having breakfast in kitchen
Many foods are fortified with B-12, including many breakfast cereals. (Image: Kraig Scarbinsky/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Vitamin B-12 is essential for brain and nervous system functioning in humans. It is most commonly found in animal and dairy products such as eggs and milks, so getting enough is a real concern for those switching to a vegetarian diet. Fortunately, many foods are fortified with B-12 including many breakfast cereals, veggie burgers, soymilk and nutritional yeast. It is also commonly available as a supplement.

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