Juicy hamburgers, Thanksgiving turkey and foot-long hot dogs are not on the menu for most vegetarians. Instead, they may opt for a fruit salad, spaghetti with tomato sauce or vegetable stir-fry. If that doesn't sound appetizing to you, this might be the icing on the cake: by focusing on plants for food, vegetarians generally live longer and bypass numerous major health problems that affect many Americans.
There are several different kinds of vegetarian diets. Strict vegetarians eat only plant-based foods and exclude all meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and foods that contain these products. Lacto-vegetarians consume milk and milk products such as cheese, yogurt and butter, but not meat, fish, poultry or eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude meat, fish and poultry, but include dairy and eggs. Ovo-vegetarians allow eggs, but not meat, poultry, seafood or dairy. Some vegetarians are called pescatarians because they eat fish but not meat or poultry. Others are referred to as flexitarians or semi-vegetarians because they eat a mostly vegetarian diet but may include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry or fish on occasion or in small quantities.
You can get all the nutrients you need by following a vegetarian diet, but you'll need to eat a wide variety of foods. Some nutrients that you'll need to focus on include:
Calcium. You need calcium to help build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Dark green vegetables such as turnip greens, collard greens, kale and broccoli are good plant sources if you eat enough of them.
Iron. Eat plenty of dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, dried fruits, whole-grain products, or dark leafy green vegetables, as well as foods rich in vitamin C that help the body absorb iron, such as strawberries, tomatoes and cabbage.
Omega-3 fatty acids. These are important for heart health. Good sources of this nutrient are canola or soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed and soybeans.
Protein. Meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are recommended to get enough of this nutrient to maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs.
Vitamin B12. This nutrient helps prevent anemia, but is found almost exclusively in animal products. Vegetarians may need to take vitamin supplements, or eat vitamin-enriched cereals or fortified soy products.
Vitamin D. Vegetarians may need to take a supplement if they don't get enough vitamin D through fortified foods or sun exposure.
Zinc. Cheese is a good option for zinc, but plant sources such as whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ are other choices.
Eating a vegetarian diet can help you improve blood sugar control and insulin response, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. People who follow this kind of diet also tend to weigh less than meat-eaters and have lower cancer rates.
Holly Mlodzinski is a registered dietitian and health promotions coordinator at Hilton Head Hospital.