Natural Nutrition: Vegetarian Diets

By Felicia Marzolf, Dietetics Student


A vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet that does not include meat, fish and poultry. However, there are a variety of vegetarian diets.

Lacto-vegetarian diets eliminate meat, fish, poultry and eggs, including foods that contain these foods. However, they consume dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish and poultry, but allow eggs and dairy products.

Ovo-vegetarian diets remove meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but allow eggs.

Vegan – like vegetarians, vegans do not consume meat, fish or poultry, but vegans also do not consume other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, or honey. They may also avoid leather, fur, silk, wool, and cosmetics and soaps made from animal products.

There are many reasons why people become vegetarians – such as for religious purposes, environmental reasons, health concerns and ethical reasons. Vegetarianism isn’t for everyone, but there are some benefits to being a vegetarian. There is research that shows a vegetarian diet is beneficial, and may be healthier than an omnivorous diet because it contains less saturated fat, and cholesterol, and more folate, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and carotenoids. The research shows that vegetarians have a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type II diabetes. However; cutting food groups out of one’s diet does create nutritional concerns.

Nutritional Concerns

There are a number of nutrients of concern for vegetarians and vegans because they have chosen not to include animal products in their diets.

For Vegans:
For vegans the main nutritional concern is absorption of Vitamin B12 and minerals. Vitamin B12 affects development and maintenance of red blood cells and nerve cells, and aids in production of DNA. Some vegan sources of Vitamin B12 are fortified foods, such as certain brands of cereal, nutritional yeast, soy milk, veggie “meats”, or supplementation.

Minerals are needed in the diet for a variety of functions, such as building strong bones and teeth, blood, skin, hair, and nerve and muscle function. Some minerals are magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Vitamin C is also important in absorption of these foods. Food sources include legumes, whole grains, spinach, peppers, dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, and avocados.

Protein is another nutritional concern for all vegans. It is important to get high quality proteins in one’s diet. Some sources of plant-based protein are beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, tempeh, and peas. (For other vegetarians, dairy and eggs are also high quality proteins.)

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are important building blocks in our body. Our body is unable to make all of the amino acids it needs, so it’s necessary to get these essential amino acids through food sources. Typically animal products can provide these essential amino acids, but for vegans, combining two or more incomplete foods can provide them. Complementary amino acid food combinations can be legumes with grains, nuts, or seeds. Some meal ideas are:

  • Tacos filled with beans or lentils
  • Peanut butter sandwich
  • Tofu with rice or any grain
  • Hummus with pita bread
  • Whole grain cereal with milk (For Lacto and Lacto-ovo-vegetarians)

Soy products are a good source as well, but there are some risks of high soy consumption. High consumption can negatively influence fertility, women are more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles, and it may be related to reduced sperm count in men.

Soy products contain isoflavones which have an estrogen like effect and can affect bone restoration and menopausal symptoms. Try to have less than 100mg of isoflavones per day. Soy protein contains about 1-10.5 mg of isoflavones per gram. Some example of this would be:

  • Tofu 3oz – 28 mg
  • Soybeans 1/2 cup – 55 mg
  • Soy milk 8oz – 10 mg

For Non-Vegan Vegetarians:
Iron absorption is a big issue with vegetarians. Iron is important for carrying oxygen in the blood. Recommendations for iron for vegetarians (including vegans) is 1.8 times higher than non-vegetarians. It is important to eat plant-based iron sources with vitamin C to get maximum absorption. Some examples are beans and tomato sauce, or stir-fried tofu and broccoli or spinach cooked in lemon juice.

Tips for Vegetarians and Vegans:

Eating out can be a challenge depending on the restaurant. Today there are many restaurant that cater to vegetarians. Most of the time they can accommodate to vegetarians by substituting a meatless sauce, omitting meat from the meal, and by adding vegetables or pasta in its place. Also think about dining at ethnic restaurants such as Mexican, Indian or Thai because they will have more vegetarian options. In Mt. Pleasant we have Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, and Hibachi restaurants, which offer a variety of options for both vegans and other vegetarians. Sometimes you can also be creative and order several different side dishes as your main meal.

Build meals around a protein source that is naturally low in fat, like rice, beans, or lentils. This will ensure you get enough protein in your diet. Don’t load your plate with high-fat items to replace meat.

When it comes to cooking, it can be tricky at first learning to cook with substitutes for meat and dairy products. There are a variety of websites you can visit for tips, like Vegetarian Times, Post Punk Kitchen, or Herbivoracious. Some meat substitutes are tofu, wheat gluten or seitan, and tempeh. Dairy substitutes include soy milk, rice, coconut, almond and other nut milks, soy, coconut, or almond yogurt, and soy sour cream. GreenTree carries a wide variety of meat and dairy substitutes, including tofu, tempeh, sausages, patties, crumbles, yogurts, and cheeses.

Any Questions? Please contact FeliciaMarzolf, Central Michigan University Dietetics Student at marzo1fm@cmich.edu, or her Supervising Nutrition and Dietetics Professor, Dr. Leslie Hildebrandt, PhD, RD, Hilde1LA@cmich.edu.


This article was written by Felicia in a volunteer capacity. The views expressed may or may not be those of GreenTree Cooperative Grocery.

One comment

  • If you are planning to become vegetarian but you have not tried it, then this would be the first difficult decision that will be facing this year. It can never be easy embracing veggies for your whole life if this is not your lifestyle since you were a kid. But there are still ways on how to become vegetarian just what we have here.

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