Do your homework before going on vegetarian, vegan diet

Take extra care to get necessary nutrients

SAN ANTONIO – Are you thinking about giving up meat?

While there are several health benefits of going on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to make sure you get the nutrients you need when giving up meat and dairy.

"You need to do your homework. You need to plan your meals. You need to learn as much as you can about the nutritive aspects of foods," said Laurie Gershgorn, a vegan chef.

For a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, Consumer Reports suggests you need to pay special attention to getting enough of four important nutrients: protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.

"There are plenty of plant foods that have protein. For example, tofu, chickpeas and other legumes and high-protein grains, such as quinoa. Eat some protein at every meal," said Consumer Reports health editor Patricia Calvo. 
Don't forget bone-building calcium. Doctors recommend 1,000 milligrams daily, 1,200 if you're a woman over 50. 

How do you get calcium if you don't eat dairy?  

"Plant sources of calcium include almonds, bok choy, collard greens, kale, fortified plant milk or orange juice and calcium-set tofu," Calvo said.

Getting enough iron can be a challenge when you don't eat meat. Pair good plant iron sources like lentils, Swiss chard and white beans and other legumes with foods that contain vitamin C, such as oranges and red bell pepper.

"Combining plant foods rich in iron with vitamin C helps boost iron absorption," Calvo said.

Another nutrient you may miss out on is B12, which is crucial for brain and nervous system function. 

Fortified plant milks, meat alternatives and breakfast cereals can help you get B12.

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