Multiple studies have linked vegetarian diets to a reduced incidence of chronic disease and cancer. Excluding meat or animal products makes a diet healthier, but there are other factors to consider.
As with all dietary patterns, it’s important not to rely too heavily on processed foods.
The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, as with all diets, is to include a variety of foods It’s especially important for older adults to be aware of their nutritional needs, since aging can increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian about developing a healthy vegetarian eating plan that meets your needs. In general, though, pay attention to these nutrients:
º Calcium and vitamin D. Milk and dairy foods are highest in calcium. However, dark green vegetables are good plant sources when eaten in sufficient quantities. Calcium-enriched and fortified products, including juices and cereals, are other options. Vitamin D also plays an important role in bone health, immune function and in the reduction of inflammation. Vitamin D is added to milk, some brands of soy and rice milk, and some cereals. If you don’t eat enough fortified foods and have limited sun exposure, you may need a vitamin D supplement derived from plants. Of note is that research studies suggest a high intake of vegetables and fruits is associated with increased bone mineral density, which is probably due to mechanisms other than calcium or vitamin D.
º Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 is necessary to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Dairy and eggs are good sources, if you include these in your diet. Older adults tend to have more difficulty absorbing vitamin B-12 from food and may want to consider fortified foods or vitamin supplements to make up for any deficiencies.
º Protein. Protein helps maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Eggs and dairy products are good sources, and you don’t need to eat large amounts to meet your protein needs. You can get sufficient protein from plant-based foods (e.g., soy products, legumes, lentils, seeds, nuts and whole grains) if you eat a variety throughout the day.
º Omega-3 fatty acids. Diets that don’t include fish and eggs are generally low in active forms of omega-3 fatty acids. Canola oil, soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed and soybeans are good sources of a plant-based form of omega-3s called alpha-linolenic acid. However, conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to the omega-3 types that are best for heart health is much less efficient.
º Iron and zinc. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. Because iron isn’t as easily absorbed from plant sources, the recommended intake of iron for vegetarians is almost double that of nonvegetarians. To help your body absorb iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C (e.g., strawberries, citrus fruits or tomatoes) at the same time as you’re eating iron-containing foods. Cheese is a good option if you eat dairy. Plant sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ.
º Iodine. Just one-fourth of a teaspoon of iodized salt a day provides a significant amount of iodine.
If you need a good starting point for additional information, visit Vegetarian Nutrition — a website created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — at https://vegetariannutrition.net.
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