Adopting a vegetarian diet inevitably presents a variety of nutritional concerns. Whatever your concerns might be, the United States Department of Agriculture states that a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs. This is particularly true for lacto-ovo vegetarians, who consume eggs and dairy. However, the USDA recognizes that low protein, iron, vitamin B-12, zinc and calcium might be nutritional risks for some vegetarians.
Protein and Amino Acids
According to the USDA, you can easily meet your daily protein and essential amino acid needs without eating animal products. Soy products, nuts, beans, nut butters and peas are a few examples of high-protein foods that are suitable for all vegetarians. Lacto-ovo vegetarians have the added benefit of eating eggs and dairy products, both of which are great sources of protein. In fact, eggs and cow's milk are among the few vegetarian foods that contain large amounts of all essential amino acids. Other high-quality vegetarian protein sources with a similar amino acid profile include spinach, quinoa and soybeans.
Another common concern for those switching to a vegetarian diet is finding plant-based sources of iron. The USDA recognizes this, but notes that a well-planned vegetarian diet contains more than enough iron. You can meet your daily iron needs by eating spinach, fortified breakfast cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, peas, whole-wheat bread and dried fruits. Combining these foods with fruits or fruit juices will help to boost your iron intake, as vitamin C increases your body's ability to absorb plant-based sources of iron.
Vitamin B-12 plays a key role in the normal functioning of your brain and nervous system. Unfortunately for most vegetarians, animal products are the only foods that are naturally rich in vitamin B-12. Lacto-ovo vegetarians are the exception to this rule, as dairy products and eggs are both good sources of this important vitamin. Fortified foods serve as the only other major vegetarian source of vitamin B-12. These include some breakfast cereals, mock meats, dairy alternatives and nutritional yeast.
Zinc and Calcium
Two other minerals that the USDA identifies as potential concerns for vegetarians are calcium and zinc. Luckily, milk and milk products are great sources of both of these nutrients. Although it would be difficult to meet your calcium needs without milk, plant foods that help to boost your calcium intake include collard greens, spinach, fortified orange juice and tofu made with calcium sulfate. Similar to iron, you can boost your body's zinc absorption by combining zinc-rich plant foods with a source of vitamin C. In addition to milk, you can find large amounts of zinc in beans, fortified breakfast cereals and pumpkin seeds.
Matthew Lee has been writing professionally since 2007. Past and current research projects have explored the effect of a diagnosis of breast cancer on lifestyle and mental health and adherence to lifestyle-based (i.e. nutrition and exercise) and drug therapy treatment programs. He holds a Master of Arts in psychology from Carleton University and is working toward his doctorate in health psychology.