Monday, June 20, 2011

Ask Us Anything: How Can I Add Protein to a Vegetarian Diet?

"Whenever I tell people that I am a vegetarian, they ask me how I get my protein. There seems to be a perception that eating meat is healthier than abstaining from meat products and I'm wondering if this is true."

Registered Dietitian Deborah Richter Responds:

Registered Dietitian Deborah RichterVegetarian diets can contain ample protein, particularly if dairy products and eggs are consumed.

There are many protein choices that will provide sufficient nutrients. Dried beans, nuts and cooked legumes are good sources of protein, fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals.

However, several nutrients are either lacking or very low in meatless diets. These include iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and D, and possibly calcium. Thus, vegetarians are advised to consume specific foods on a daily basis to ensure adequate intakes of these nutrients.

Good choices include:
  • Dried fruits and fortified breakfast cereals (for iron)
  • Nuts (for iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids)
  • Fortified non-dairy soy beverages (for vitamin B12, calcium and D) 
  • Green leafy vegetables (for calcium)
Vegan vegetarians (those who do not eat dairy or eggs) are advised to supplement their diets with vitamins B12, D and the mineral calcium if they choose to omit fortified foods from the diet.

The health benefits of vegetarian diets include a reduced risk of:
  • heart disease,
  • high blood pressure,
  • diabetes,
  • certain cancers, and
  • obesity.
Vegetarians usually consume more fiber-rich foods such as dried beans, nuts, whole grains and more vegetables and fruits. These foods provide excellent sources of vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, and are rich sources of phytochemicals (plant chemicals). These nutrients help to protect blood and tissues from oxidative stress resulting from normal metabolism. They also protect from exposure to environmental irritants such as pollution, UV light, chemicals, and cigarette smoke.

It is important to choose a variety of foods and to maintain a balance with the portions and to practice moderation. This message is good for everyone, vegetarian or meat eater.

Enjoy those crunchy vegetables and the benefits of a healthy diet!

Resources for more information include:
— Deborah Richter, RD

Deborah Richter is a registered dietitian at Sisters of Charity Hospital, St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga. She teaches diabetes education classes and provides outpatient nutrition counseling. She has helped her clients to lose weight, reduce their blood pressure and feel better about themselves through healthy eating choices.

If you have a question about your health, click here to ask our experts.


  1. If i became a vegetarian and im only 13 would that affect my growth in a harmful way as a growing teenager?

    1. Becoming a vegetarian as a thirteen year old can be a healthy diet, but because of the rapid growth that occurs during the teen years, it does require some planning.

      Variety is very important, and for some teens, pizza & soda pop can be the main food of life (not much variety). I would expect from your interest in eating vegetarian meals that you already eat a good variety of foods.

      The foods that need to be included are good sources of protein: dried beans, nuts, eggs, cooked legumes, dairy and low fat cheese are all tasty choices.

      Calcium is important to help build bones, since bone density is determined in adolescence. Look for low-fat dairy choices or calcium-fortified foods, and eat several servings per day. For example, have cereal and milk at breakfast or snacks.

      Also important is the need for good food sources of iron. Again, eat a variety of foods and include iron-rich foods like broccoli, raisins, spinach, chickpeas, pinto beans and blackstrap molasses.

      The other nutrient to be on the look out for is vitamin B12. Try egg omelets or fortified cereals, with vitamin B12 added to soy milk.

      In the above article, I discussed vegan vegetarian diets (in which you do not eat dairy or eggs). In this case, it is advised to supplement with vitamins B12, D and the mineral calcium.

      It is important to choose a variety of foods and to maintain balanced portions and to practice moderation. I suggest that you start out slowly. Eat one or two vegetarian meals per week and weekly increase the number and variety of meat-less meals. Another suggestion is to purchase a good vegetarian cookbook or look for healthy vegetarian recipes online.

      Wishing you good health, and enjoy those delicious veggies!

      Additional resources:

      Vegetarian Society -
      Vegetarian Resource Group - - explains the basics of vegetarian eating and nutrition


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