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Vegetarians and Malnutrition

By Lindsay Boyers

“Vegetarian” is not a one-size-fits-all term. Some vegetarians won’t touch animal-based foods, while others are OK with eating some eggs and dairy products once in a while. Regardless of your reason for being a vegetarian, the stricter you are with your diet, the more likely you are to develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies and become malnourished.

The Elusive Vitamin B-12

Animal-based foods, like meat, poultry, eggs and milk, are the only natural sources of vitamin B-12. Plant foods, which are the basis of the vegetarian diet, do not contain any vitamin B-12 naturally. Because of this, strict vegetarians are at an increased risk of developing vitamin B-12 deficiencies. The Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital website notes that 92 percent of strict vegetarians become deficient in vitamin B-12, putting them at risk of exhaustion and anemia and increasing the risk of coronary artery disease. To avoid a vitamin B-12 deficiency, vegetarians must consume foods fortified with the vitamin or take a supplement per a doctor’s orders.

Increase Your Iron

Iron is found in both animal-based and plant-based foods, but the type in each differs. Plant foods contain nonheme iron, which is less easily absorbed than the heme iron that is found in animal-based foods. Because of this, restrictive vegetarian diets may increase the risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia. Careful planning and food combining can reduce the likelihood of iron deficiency. Eating nonheme iron sources, like oatmeal, baked potatoes, peanut butter and broccoli, with a food that’s high in vitamin C can increase the amount of iron your body absorbs.

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Calcium Without Dairy

Because milk and other dairy products are a major source of calcium in the American diet, vegetarians who cut out this food group are more likely to become deficient in calcium, which helps build strong bones and plays a role in normal muscle and nerve function. Vegetarians can meet their calcium needs by consuming plenty of calcium-rich vegetables, such as kale, Chinese cabbage, tofu and broccoli, and fortified beverages, like soy milk.

Getting Your D

Vitamin D works with calcium to keep your bones strong. There are few natural foods that contain vitamin D, and the ones that do -- egg yolks, fortified milk and liver -- may not be vegetarian-friendly. Because of this, strict vegetarians are more likely to develop vitamin D deficiencies. Vegetarians can get vitamin D by consuming fortified soy milk or through exposure to the sun. Your skin can synthesize vitamin D when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

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