A vegetarian diet is a healthy choice if you pay attention to nutritional requirements and follow a balanced eating plan. The Mayo Clinic created a vegetarian food pyramid that recommends daily food intake of six servings of grains, five servings of nuts, beans, legumes and other protein foods, four servings of vegetables, two of fruit and two of unsaturated fats. (See References 5) Inattention to dietary needs can create side effects that are unpleasant and unhealthy. For vegans, who avoid all animal products, countering potential dietary deficiencies is particularly important.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
If you are a strict vegetarian and eat no dairy, eggs or other animal products, your diet may be deficient in vitamin B12. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include anemia, weakness, poor balance and tingling in the arms and legs, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. B12 is important for metabolism, maintenance of the central nervous system and the formation of red blood cells. Vegetarian sources of B12 include fortified grains and nutritional yeast, as well as vitamin supplements. (See References 1)
The most readily absorbed iron is available in foods many vegetarians do not consume: red meats, poultry and fish. A lack of sufficient iron can cause anemia. Symptoms of low iron include exhaustion, weakness, slow cognitive development, chills and increased susceptibility to infection. Women who suffer from iron deficiency can give birth to premature or low birth weight infants. But the type of iron found in beans, lentils, enriched grains, spinach, raisins and tofu is adequate for normal nutritional needs. The National Institutes for Health recommends that vegetarians get twice as much iron as non-vegetarians because the type of iron they consume is more difficult to absorb. NIH advises vegetarians to increase iron absorption by taking vitamin C or consuming citrus with plant-based iron sources. (See References 4)
Zinc helps you to smell and taste. It's also important for the immune system -- zinc helps wounds heal, is a factor in cell division and cell growth and contributes to the process of carbohydrate break down. Zinc is found in high protein foods like meats and dark meat poultry, so vegans and many vegetarians can develop a zinc deficiency. That could result in poor appetite, frequent infections, hair loss and a host of other symptoms. One good way for vegetarians to consume zinc is by eating legumes, peanuts and peanut butter, although zinc from animal protein is more readily absorbed by the body. (See References 3)
Calcium and Bone Loss
Strong bones need calcium and one of the best ways to get it is from dairy products. If milk, yogurt and butter aren't part of your diet, look for cereals, breads and juices that have added calcium, fortified tofu, kale, broccoli and Chinese cabbage. Calcium shortages can lead to thinning bone density and osteoporosis, dental problems and other medical conditions. Calcium helps blood to circulate through the body, muscles to move, nerves to transmit messages from the brain, and it releases hormones and enzymes. The NIH points out that calcium supplements can interfere with some medications so you should check with your health care provider before adding supplements to any diet. (See References 6)
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Vitamin B12 --- Side Effects
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Vitamin B12 Benefits
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Zinc in Diet -- All Information
- National Institutes for Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Mayo Clinic: Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition
- National Institutes for Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based freelance writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," "The Miami Herald," on CBS, CNN, ABC and in professional journals, trade publications and blogs. Crawford is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, currently studying green nutrition.
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