The most important food sources of useful substances for vegetarians


  • The different ways to say vegetarian
    • Lacto-Ovo Vegetarianism (LOV)
    • Lacto-vegetarianism
    • Veganism
  • Macrobiotics, raw food and fructism
  • What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?
  • Vegetarianism also benefits the environment
  • What is so valuable about plant-based foods?
    • Dietary fiber
    • Phytocompounds
    • Fats
  • The elements that cannot be missing in a vegetarian diet
    • Proteins for vegetarians
    • Vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12
    • Vegetarian sources of Iron
    • Vegetarian sources of calcium
    • Vegetarian sources of zinc
    • Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Is a plant-based diet always good for your health?
  • Why do people become vegetarians?
  • How to increase your consumption of plant foods
  • Animal foods and cancer

In recent years, the vegetarian diet has consolidated among the eating habits of part of the world’s population. There is a growing awareness that a diet based mainly on the consumption of plant foods can help reduce the risk of developing chronic pathologies, including tumors. At the same time, the idea that food choices can affect the health of our planet is also becoming more widespread.

Therefore, the reasons for sticking to this eating pattern are numerous, but there are some things you should pay attention to when you decide to change your eating habits.

Here’s a little guide for those who have made the choice to go vegetarian so that they are more aware of some possible risks that may occur when eliminating a food category from their diet.

The different ways to say vegetarian

Before we get into the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet, it’s important to clarify the different eating patterns that can fall under this definition. The possible problems and adjustments that need to be made are actually different depending on the types of foods that are excluded.

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarianism (LOV)

Those who follow a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet exclude meat, its derivatives and all edible aquatic species (ie fish, molluscs and crustaceans) from their diet.

In this dietary model, the consumption of milk, its derivatives (dairy products and cheeses) and eggs, as well as all foods of plant origin, are permitted.

In general, it is a balanced diet, if it is well planned, without exaggerating daily with the consumption of eggs and cheese and taking care to change the foods that are sources of protein , including those of plant origin, especially legumes.


Instead, a lacto-vegetarian diet involves avoiding the consumption of not only meat, fish and their derivatives, but also eggs (considered “potential” animals).

Legumes should be well present in the weekly menus. Cutting out eggs means giving up some essential nutrients, such as high-quality protein and vitamin B12 (one egg covers more than half of the adult’s daily need for this vitamin).

However, it may not be a problem to eliminate eggs from your diet if you compensate well by eating plant-based protein sources, not just cheese, and if you monitor your vitamin B12 level, possibly compensating for deficiencies with a supplement.


Those who follow a vegan diet exclude all animal products from their diet, including eggs and milk, instead consuming exclusively plant foods (including algae).

This type of diet is a more restrictive version of the vegetarian diet, and with an incorrect structure, it can lead to the appearance of nutritional deficiencies. That’s why it’s important to make careful choices, to be evaluated by your doctor or nutritionist, to introduce all the nutrients that the body needs (especially in the most delicate phases of life such as infancy, pregnancy and breastfeeding , and in elderly people).

In particular, it is good to pay attention to the levels of protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc. Some of them require supplements, for example vitamin B12, a nutrient found exclusively in foods of animal origin.

Macrobiotics, raw food and fructism

Macrobiotic , raw food, and fruitarian diets are different eating patterns than the vegetarian diets described above.

They have no health and scientific basis and the risk of experiencing deficiencies and imbalances is greater than vegetarian diets built on the principle of diversity.

Macrobiotics, invented at the beginning of the 20th century by the Japanese George Oshawa based on Zen philosophy, separates the elements according to the Eastern principles of yin and yang.

Raw foodism and fructianism represent the most extreme forms of vegetarianism . Raw foodism involves eating only raw plant foods (sprouted grains and legumes, fresh and dried fruits and seeds, but also eggs and milk), while the more restrictive fruit diet is to eat only fresh and dried fruits, seeds and some vegetables.

Numerous epidemiological studies that examine the prevalence and incidence of diseases or other events in a population emphasize how a diet based primarily on the consumption of foods of plant origin is fundamental to maintaining health. In general, the traditional Mediterranean diet has so far proven to be more effective in the prevention of the most common chronic diseases in our country, such as tumors, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and respiratory diseases.

However, the researchers are also investigating whether other dietary patterns may have similar effects. In particular, they believe that among the most followed diets in Western and Asian countries are those that usually fall under the definition of a vegetarian diet: lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan diets.

What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?

According to the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarian diets, if properly planned, can promote health. In particular, those who follow a vegetarian diet have a reduced risk of developing certain clinical conditions, including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, some forms of cancer and obesity.

Low intake of foods rich in saturated fat and high consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (foods rich in fiber and phytocompounds) are characteristics of vegetarian diets that favor blood pressure reduction. total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels and better control of postprandial glycemic load.

The benefits are also due to the lower consumption of sugars and salt.

In addition, people who generally consume more plant-based foods also tend to be more health-conscious, lead healthier lifestyles (generally non-smokers, non-drinkers, and physically active). All these conditions contribute to reducing the likelihood of developing the chronic diseases listed above.

The World Cancer Research Fund’s recommendations, drawn up by a group of experts in nutrition science and beyond, urge you to introduce plant-based foods into your diet and limit your consumption of red and preserved meat and processed foods in general. (often rich in sugars, fats and salt) for the prevention of oncological diseases.

The secret to a healthy and balanced diet lies above all in the quantities: to reduce the risk of disease, it is not necessary to completely eliminate foods of animal origin (such as milk and eggs, but also meat). However, it is certainly helpful to limit your consumption and increase your intake of fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Vegetarianism also benefits the environment

Diets based primarily on the consumption of plant foods are being studied for their benefits not only to health but also to the environment, and it is clear how daily food choices can also affect the well-being of the planet.

In general, livestock production appears to use more water and soil resources and produce more greenhouse gases than growing plant foods (such as legumes and nuts).

However, it’s good to remember that sustainable eating doesn’t just mean preferring to eat plant-based foods, but also reducing food waste.

What is so valuable about plant-based foods?

Although different nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals) are present in different amounts in the nutritional composition of foods, some elements are exclusive to the plant world (cereals, legumes, fresh and nuts, vegetables and oilseeds).

Dietary fiber

Dietary fiber is not a true nutrient, but a set of compounds that exert a number of positive actions on health, especially in the last part of the digestive system (colorectal).

Although our body does not have the enzymes necessary to digest fiber, the microorganisms that inhabit the intestinal tract can use it as food, producing metabolites with a beneficial effect on our health. Therefore, fiber favors the reproduction of microorganisms that are more beneficial to us.

The positive effects of dietary fiber do not end there. Once they reach the gut, they facilitate transit, regulate the absorption of other nutrients, promote a greater sense of satiety, reduce blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and reduce the glycemic load of food.

The results of numerous studies show that subjects who more often consume foods rich in fiber have a lower risk of developing chronic diseases (especially colon cancer, cardiovascular events and type 2 diabetes).

To maintain health, it is recommended that the adult population consume 25-30 grams of fiber per day. In order to reach this amount, it is necessary not only to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times a day, but also to include in the diet cereals and derivatives, preferably in a whole-grain version, and legumes.


Bioactive compounds that have generated great interest in scientific research in recent years, phytocompounds are characteristic exclusively of foods of plant origin.

Plants produce these compounds both to protect themselves from environmental stress (light, predators, insects, pathogens) and to perform other functions. They serve, for example, to produce the pigments needed to attract the insects responsible for pollination, and are therefore essential for the reproduction of the plant itself.

In addition to promoting normal plant physiology, phytocompounds also appear to have a positive role in human health, particularly in the prevention of many chronic diseases.

They are not essential nutrients for development, but laboratory studies show how some phytocompounds modulate many biological activities. Although some studies have shown promising and interesting results about the possible beneficial effect of these substances, further studies in humans are needed to confirm these conclusions.

An example for all: beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A and found mainly in orange vegetables, appears in laboratory studies to slow the proliferation of tumor cells. In fact, subjects who consume more foods containing beta-carotene have a lower risk of developing cancer, particularly lung cancer. However, further studies are needed to verify whether the correlation is actually due to this compound.

It can be hypothesized that taking a supplement with beta-carotene or other phytocompounds may have the same protective effect as a diet rich in vegetables. In fact, research shows that this is not the case. Vegetables are actually a difficult to reproduce mixture of substances, each of which helps the other to function better.


Extra virgin olive oil, legumes, oilseeds and nuts are rich in unsaturated fats, also called “good” fats. In a healthy diet, priority should be given to saturated fats contained in meat and its derivatives, milk, cheese and eggs, which should be consumed to a lesser extent.

The situation is different with fish, which contains types of fat that are particularly important for health.

Therefore, vegetarian diets are characterized by a reduced introduction of saturated fat. Excessive consumption of these fats can lead to weight gain, with a subsequent increase in the risk of developing chronic diseases, including cancer, and an increase in blood cholesterol levels, which compromises the health of the heart and arteries.

Conversely, “good” fats are allies of the cardiovascular system and help maintain a normal weight, reducing the risk of overweight and obesity.

Recent studies comparing different eating patterns have shown that those who follow a vegetarian diet have a lower body mass index than those who follow an omnivorous diet (body mass index is a parameter used in nutrition science to assess subject’s body weight).

The elements that cannot be missing in a vegetarian diet

The Working Group of the Italian Society of Human Nutrition stated that a vegetarian diet does not pose a health risk when planned in a balanced way. In this case, in fact, a vegetarian diet can meet the energy needs of the elderly population and can be followed under the different physiological conditions of the life cycle. However, in childhood and adolescence, or during periods of pregnancy and breastfeeding, it may be useful to rely on a doctor or nutritionist who will be able to advise and evaluate the most appropriate choices to make based on nutritional needs.

The secret is to eat a wide variety of foods, in the right amounts. However, there are some components of the diet that should be paid special attention, let’s see what they are.

Proteins for vegetarians

Proteins make up all the tissues of our body, mainly muscles. They are also involved in the formation of hormones and enzymes and provide energy, just like fats and sugars.

In a vegetarian diet, most protein should come from legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas, soybeans, etc.) and from grains and derivatives (bread, pasta, rice, spelt, barley, oats, buckwheat, etc.) .

Yet many believe that those who follow a vegetarian diet, especially a vegan one, are at risk of protein deficiency. This is not always true as long as the diet includes variety in food consumption, particularly the combination of legumes and grains throughout the day.

The former contain a lot of protein, although of lower quality than meat, eggs and dairy products. In fact, legumes do not contain all the essential amino acids, ie. the building blocks of proteins that our body is unable to synthesize from scratch.

However, grains contain good amounts of these amino acids, which are scarce in legumes, and for this reason the combination of the two types of food (as in pasta and beans, pasta and lentils, and spelled and bean salads) is a valid alternative to a piece of meat.

However, it is not essential to consume grains and legumes in the same meal, plant foods, which are a vegetarian source of protein , can be distributed at different times of the day to achieve the same goal.

However, scientific evidence shows that proteins of plant origin are less digestible than those of animal origin contained in meat, milk and eggs.

For this reason, it may be appropriate for vegetarians to consume a slightly higher amount of protein than is recommended for the general population. Although, as confirmed by the Italian Society of Human Nutrition, scientific evidence shows that, in general, protein intake is sufficient in vegetarian diets.

For people in high-need conditions (such as pregnant and lactating women, growing children, and the elderly), this increase can easily be achieved by changing all plant sources daily.

Vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for the functioning of the body, especially the nervous system and the liver. It is mainly found in foods of animal origin. For this reason, its possible deficiency is one of the main critical issues to face when following a strictly vegetarian diet.

Among plant foods, algae can contain very different amounts of vitamin B12 and are therefore no guarantee of adequate intake. In addition, some types of algae contain molecules similar to vitamin B12, which, however, are biologically inactive and may even reduce the bioavailability of the active forms.

So-called tempeh , a fermented food made from yellow soybeans, is often considered by many vegetarians to be a good source of vitamin B12, even if current scientific evidence does not support this.

For these reasons, everyone following a vegetarian diet is advised to consult a nutritionist (nutritionist or nutritionist) or doctor to supplement their diet with reliable sources of vitamin B12 (fortified foods or supplements).

Vegetarian sources of Iron

Iron is an essential trace element for the transport of oxygen to the tissues: it is contained in hemoglobin, the pigment of red blood cells. Its deficiency causes symptoms such as fatigue, pallor and fragility of rapidly changing tissues such as blood, hair and nails.

In addition to meat, iron is present in many plant-based foods, such as legumes, grains, and even some types of vegetables (mainly green leafy vegetables, such as arugula and radicchio) and nuts (eg, pistachios, almonds, and peanuts).

Iron absorption on a vegetarian diet is about 5-12 percent, while on an omnivorous diet it is 14-18 percent. For this reason, those following a lacto-ovo-vegetarian or vegan diet are recommended to consume 80% more iron than omnivores.

If, on the one hand, it is true that the iron present in vegetables is found in a form that is easiest to absorb, the so-called non-heme iron, on the other hand, its absorption can be promoted by transforming the chemical form into the most the digestible (heme form) through small adjustments in the kitchen.

Combining it with foods that contain ascorbic acid or vitamin C promotes iron absorption. What to do? You can use lemon juice or zest to season a second legume dish; accompany the dish with a garnish of peppers or raw tomatoes; or complete the meal with strawberries, kiwis and oranges. This suggestion should also be considered for foods of animal origin that are a source of iron that have a good percentage of non-heme iron.

Some methods of food preparation (grinding, soaking and sprouting of cereals and legumes, sour leavening of bread) allow partial degradation of compounds with iron-binding capacity (phytates and tannins). These compounds are usually present in fiber-rich foods, especially legumes.

Therefore, vegetarian diets can provide adequate amounts of this mineral by modifying the diet and adapting some strategies. Iron supplementation is only necessary in specific situations to be determined by your doctor after a clinical assessment of your iron status.

Vegetarian sources of calcium

Calcium is an essential element for the functioning of cells, for the strengthening of bones and teeth.

Plant sources of calcium are mainly legumes and products derived from soy (tofu, a soy-based vegetable drink), some green leafy vegetables (turnips, kale, beets), dried fruits and some oilseeds. However, the bioavailability of this mineral in plant foods is lower than the most well-known sources of calcium (milk and its derivatives, yogurt and cheese) because they often contain compounds, mainly oxalates and phytates, which can form insoluble complexes with calcium responsible for reduced absorption.

Subjects at greatest risk of deficiency are those following a more restrictive vegetarian diet that also excludes milk and dairy products.

Therefore, vegans should pay attention to the composition of their meals, in particular by increasing the consumption of foods that are a good source of calcium (vegetables with low oxalate and phytate content, soy and derivatives) and introducing products enriched with this mineral (such as vegetable drinks in which calcium salts have a bioavailability similar to that of milk).

Finally, water is also an important, highly available source of this mineral. Keeping a bottle of water close at hand during meals and throughout the day can certainly contribute to your daily calcium needs.

Vegetarian sources of zinc

Zinc is a trace element necessary for many biochemical reactions and is involved in the functioning of the immune system.

More than half of the zinc content of omnivores’ diets comes from meat and derivatives, dairy products, fish products and eggs, and about 40 percent from plant foods. Among them, the richest in zinc are whole grains, legumes, dried fruits and oil seeds.

At the same time, these vegetables have a high amount of phytates, oxalates and fiber, compounds that can bind to zinc and limit its absorption at the intestinal level.

In fact, it is estimated that on a vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet absorption varies between 15-26%, while on an omnivorous diet between 33 and 35%.

As with iron, some preparation methods can improve the bioavailability of zinc by degrading these compounds. For example, a valid strategy is to observe the soaking and cooking times of legumes and grains.

In addition, in vegetarian diets it is recommended to increase the intake of zinc and to consume foods rich in these minerals accompanied by vegetables that are sources of organic acids found mainly in fruits and vegetables of the Brassicaceae family (broccoli, cabbage and others. ).

Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fatty acids

In general, vegetarian diets are richer in so-called good fats than omnivorous diets. What you should pay attention to is a certain class of unsaturated fats, omega-3, which have a beneficial effect for the prevention of chronic diseases.

In plant foods, the only omega-3 fatty acid present is α-linolenic acid (ALA). It is the progenitor of this class of compounds from which our body is able to produce eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), also called long-chain omega-3s. In omnivorous diets, EPA and DHA are mainly obtained from fish.

The recommendation for vegetarians is :

Regularly introduce foods that are excellent sources of ALA into your diet. Nuts such as walnuts and oilseeds (flaxseed, chia seeds and oil derived from them) are rich in them. Algae can also contribute to the daily requirement of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Promote the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA by paying attention to adequate intake of certain nutrients (protein, pyridoxine, biotin, calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc).

Limit the consumption of foods that contain substances that can interfere with the conversion process, such as omega-6 fatty acids, trans fatty acids and alcohol.

Finally, supplementation with titrated sources of microalgae may be necessary in certain phases of life in which the need for omega-3 physiologically increases (pregnant and lactating women and girls and boys up to 2 years of age) or in people who they may have a lower conversion capacity, such as the elderly or patients suffering from chronic diseases.

Is a plant-based diet always good for your health?

Not necessarily – if a product is composed mainly of plant ingredients, it does not automatically mean that it is healthy. To follow a healthy and balanced diet based mostly or exclusively on plant foods, you still have to favor some foods and limit the consumption of others.

Quantity and frequency are always key on a vegetarian diet and it’s good to keep an eye on fat, sugars and salt.

For example, so-called veggie burgers are increasingly present on supermarket shelves, consumed as an alternative to meat, which is often high in salt; 100 g of product can provide even more than 1 gram of salt. Excessive salt consumption – the World Health Organization recommends not exceeding 5 grams per day – favors cardiovascular events, increases the risk of certain forms of cancer and can increase the loss of calcium in the urine, a mineral that especially in those, who follow a vegetarian diet and should be careful.

Therefore, reading food labels, especially the nutrition facts table and the list of ingredients, can help you make informed choices even when following a vegetarian diet.

Why do people become vegetarians?

You can embark on a vegetarian diet on your own, but whatever your reason for choosing to follow this type of eating pattern, it’s important to be properly informed about how to balance your diet.

Sometimes it can be difficult to navigate the huge amount of information and interpret the data correctly, in these situations it may be useful to contact a health professional (nutritionist, nutritionist and nutritionist).

In addition, it is always good to inform your doctor, especially if you are following a certain treatment or if you are not in optimal physiological condition.

In Italy, according to data extrapolated from the Eurispes 2020 file, among the reasons that lead to the observance of a vegetarian diet are mostly those related to well-being and health and respect for the animal world.

The ecological motivation is also adopted by the majority of Italians who follow a vegetarian diet, stating that an omnivorous diet is not sustainable for the protection of the planet.

How to increase your consumption of plant foods

Whatever your reason for wanting to follow a vegetarian diet pattern, or if you simply want to follow a healthier lifestyle, here are some tips for increasing your consumption of plant-based foods:

Reduce the frequency of meat consumption by favoring legumes.

Fruits and vegetables should be eaten at least 5 times a day.

As a snack, limit your intake of foods and drinks high in saturated fat, sugar and salt (snacks, chips, soft drinks, etc.), but choose fresh or nuts (unsalted).

Also consume cereals (barley, spelled, oats, etc.). These foods are unlikely to pair well with meat-based seasonings, but are excellent with vegetables and legumes.

Use spices and aromatic herbs to add flavor to your dishes and limit the use of spices high in salt and saturated fat.

Add oilseeds to yogurt or salads to boost them with unsaturated fats, the “good” ones.

Among vegetable drinks, only soy can be considered a valid substitute for milk from the point of view of proteins .

Always check the nutrition label of products with plant-based ingredients.

Animal foods and cancer

Authoritative epidemiological studies on nutrition and health have long linked increased consumption of foods of animal origin, particularly red and processed meat, to an increased risk of developing tumors.

However, it should be borne in mind that nutrition is a complex science to study. Extrapolating a single food or nutrient from a person’s diet and linking it to the risk of diseases defined as multifactorial, such as cancer, is even more so.

What is certain is that we are not free to eat what we like most, in the quantity and frequency we wish, because there is research that demonstrates the benefits of a diet rich in vegetables and the negative health effects of a diet based mainly on the consumption of foods of animal origin.

Experts also point to the limitations of epidemiologic studies, based mostly on responses to questionnaires provided by people questioned about their lifestyles over many decades. Clearly, these are answers that cannot be very accurate.

Furthermore, cancer is a multifactorial disease, and it is certainly not enough to intervene on one element to significantly change the risk at the individual level, but it is necessary to act on all of a person’s unhealthy habits.


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