The benefits of a meat-free diet include lower risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers. But vegetarians who make poor food choices, such as centering their diets around pizza, pasta and processed foods, can gain pounds that put them at risk for chronic health conditions. Vegetarians who don’t eat eggs or dairy should opt for foods that prevent deficiencies of vitamins B-12 and D, and of the minerals calcium and zinc.
You’ll get plenty of protein on a vegetarian diet if you incorporate a healthy mix of beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds into your regimen. However, a few vitamins are harder to come by when you don’t eat animal-based foods. A vitamin B-12 deficiency, which can result in pernicious anemia, is a risk for strict vegetarians who don’t eat eggs and dairy products. A sufficient amount of vitamin D, needed to help you absorb calcium, may also be hard to come by on a plant-based diet. Adding fortified soy or rice milk to your meal plan can help prevent these problems.
Vegetarians who don’t eat dairy products can get ample calcium from foods such as tofu and tempeh, fortified soy and rice milk, fortified orange juice, broccoli, leafy greens and almonds. Zinc, an antioxidant mineral that supports the immune system, is plentiful in animal foods, but can also be found in chickpeas, white beans, kidney beans, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about supplementation if you’re concerned about any nutrient deficiencies while following a vegetarian diet.