I've never met a vegetarian (myself included) who hasn't been asked a hundred times, "Are you getting enough protein?" But this isn't the only thing vegetarians need to watch out for. Avoiding meat means you need to pay special attention to your diet to make sure you're getting other essential nutrients as well. You also need to be careful about overdoing it with meat alternatives and dairy products, since this may prompt other health issues. If you don't eat beef, poultry, or fish, ask yourself these five questions.
- Am I getting enough protein? There's no black and white number that's right for everyone since your protein intake depends on body weight and activity level; the number ranges between 40 and 90 grams. Check out this handy chart showing how much protein you need each day. Good sources of vegetarian protein include beans, soy products like tofu and soy milk, nuts, and whole grains.
- Does my diet offer enough vitamin B12? Women need 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day, and since it's found in animal products, be sure you eat enough milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs if you're a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Vitamin B12 is also found in nutritional yeast, so sprinkle some on your popcorn or make this Vegan Mac and Cheese.
Continue reading for three more questions vegetarians should ask themselves.
- Am I at risk for anemia? Meat is a great source of iron, so if you're not eating any, it makes sense to ask this question. A woman needs 18 milligrams of iron a day, and as long as you're eating beans, dark green veggies, whole grains like barley and oats, and potatoes, you're probably getting enough. If you're not sure or you're experiencing fatigue, pale skin, weakness, headaches, dizziness, cold hands and feet, or brittle nails, make an appointment with your doc to get a blood test to check your iron levels.
- Am I overdoing it on sodium? Canned bean and veggie soup, salted nuts, pizza, cheese, meat alternatives like marinated tofu and veggie burgers, and premade vegetarian frozen entrées are commonly part of a vegetarian's diet. The problem is they tend to be high in sodium. If you're healthy and under 50 years old, you should aim to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of salt a day — about one teaspoon of the white stuff. Since that number doesn't just come from the salt shaker, you need to be mindful of the sodium content in your food. Be a label reader, and if you're worried about getting too much salt, talk to your doctor and have your blood pressure checked.
- Do I have high cholesterol? Since you don't get your protein from meat, there's a chance you fill up on dairy products like cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, butter, and eggs, which can add up to a lot of cholesterol. Be mindful of how much dairy you're eating, and if you're worried about your cholesterol, get it tested by your doctor. Your LDL levels should be between 100 and 129 mg/dL, HDL levels at 60 mg/dL or above, and triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL.