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Getting Essential Nutrients on a Vegetarian Diet

If you're thinking about becoming a vegetarian or vegan, you should give some thought to making sure that you get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. The mere fact that animal products are excluded from a diet doesn't necessarily make it healthy. I've known a few vegetarians who subsisted on chips and sodas, and it showed.

While I wouldn't discourage you from taking supplements, it's usually not necessary as long as you include the right foods in a healthy, well rounded diet. Below are listed some of the nutrients that many vegetarian or vegan diets are short on, and non-animal sources for those nutrients.

Protein - this is the big one. As soon as you say you're thinking about becoming a vegan, people will want to know how you're going to get protein. Soy products are a great source of complete protein, but don't go overboard. Try to stick to traditional sources like tofu, tempeh, miso and similar foods, and minimize the 'fake meat' stuff you'll find everywhere. Seeds, nuts and nut butters, beans, and grains all contain protein, and in the right combination, complete protein just like animal products. Eat a variety of these foods.

Iron - If you're a menstruating woman, then you probably need to pay attention to this. Include legumes, raisins, broccoli, soy, figs and sea vegetables. You might also want to include fortified cereals or a low-dose supplement. The rest of us probably don't have to worry, and in fact, are more likely to get sick from too much iron than too little.

Vitamin B12 - this one may require a supplement or fortified foods. Some authorities believe tempeh (a traditional soy product) contains B12, while others disagree.

Calcium - If your diet includes dairy products, no problem. If not, then eat lots of leafy greens. Some soy products are good sources of calcium, and these days, there are orange juices that have calcium added.

Zinc - Get this from legumes, nuts and soy, or from fortified cereals if you don't consume dairy products.

Vitamin D - Get some sun. This applies to meat eaters as well, but these days, we all seem to be petrified of the sun's rays. While of course one can get too much of a good thing, fifteen or twenty minutes of sun exposure four or five days a week will do wonders for your body's manufacturing of vitamin D. Otherwise, there are fortified cereals and soy drinks.

While it's best to get your nutrients from foods in their natural state (that means they don't come in a box or bag), you may want to take supplements or a multi-vitamin a few times a week assuming you can afford those made without artificial colors, dyes, preservatives, and similar ingredients.

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