Nutrients that vegetarians may need to focus on include protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.

Thinking about becoming a vegetarian, or even a vegan?

Before you jump on the no-meat-eggs-or-dairy bandwagon, you should know what you’re getting into. It’s much more than just switching out a few food groups.

First you need to consider how far you’re going to go.

“A vegan diet is a more strict form of this type of eating pattern on the spectrum of vegetarian to vegan,” says Abby Stanley, an integrative nutritionist with Mosaic Life Care. “Vegans strictly abstain from any animal products.”

Animal products include meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Stanley says for vegans, it really goes beyond dietary restrictions, becoming more of a lifestyle. Abstaining from animal products applies to the skin care people use, makeup, toothpaste and what type of clothes a person chooses to wear. It really is an all-encompassing lifestyle of abstaining from animal products altogether.

“Vegetarianism is really a more flexible, less strict version of veganism,” Stanley says. “The first main difference between vegetarianism and veganism is that it’s really just dietary. It’s not so much of a lifestyle.”

In that way, vegetarian diets are less restrictive.

“A lot of vegetarians do include dairy in their diet, so that’s where another big difference comes in between those two, so it’s really flexible,” Stanley says. “Under the umbrella of vegetarianism, there’s some vegetarians that don’t eat dairy but eat eggs, there are some that include eggs but not dairy.”

She says there are some vegetarians who include fish. She encourages anyone considering a more vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to decide what either looks like to you.

“Always notify your primary-care provider in any nutrition change, lifestyle change,” Stanley says. “They need to be aware of that so they can know in regards to your health.

“It’s always good to talk to a registered dietitian,” she says. “Get the best guidance you can in making that decision as informed as possible.”

If you do decide to change your diet, be aware there’s more to consider than what you won’t be eating.

“Anytime that you are eliminating whole food groups, regardless of what kind of diet it is, you do run the risk of potential nutritional deficiencies unless you’re smart about it,” says Sarah Wood, nutrition and health education specialist, with University of Missouri Extension in Buchanan County.

Experts with the United States Department of Agriculture say vegetarian diets can meet all the recommendations for nutrients. The key is to consume a variety of foods and the right amount of foods to meet your calorie needs. Follow the food group recommendations for your age, sex and activity level to get the right amount of food and the variety of foods needed for nutrient adequacy.

Nutrients that vegetarians and vegans may need to focus on include protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods, so you’ll want to stock up on a variety of B12-fortified foods as well as a B12 supplement. B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, so deficiencies can lead to tiredness, weakness, constipation and loss of appetite.

“I think sometimes animal protein gets a bad rep,” says Stanley. “But it really is a very nutrient dense food group. It’s a good source of protein. It’s also rich in a lot of minerals and B vitamins that we need.”

Erica Van Buren can be reached at erica.vanburen@newspressnow.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPVanBuren.

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