The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released 10 Tips for Following a Vegetarian Diet, and you could knock me over with a feather. It’s not just that it takes a positive approach; it actually takes a vegan approach.
While the fact sheet lists some nutrients that vegetarians need to focus on, it doesn’t have any of that annoying verbiage about the need to carefully plan meals. (Vegetarians and vegans should, of course, carefully plan their meals; so should everyone else.) More importantly, there isn’t a word about animal products in the whole fact sheet, other than how to replace them.
Beans and grains are highlighted as good protein sources. And—amazingly—the only sources of calcium mentioned are soy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods. It’s really not at all like the USDA to ignore dairy, but they have essentially agreed that calcium needs can be met without these foods.
Overall, I don’t think the tip sheet is especially useful. A few ideas about how to boost iron absorption would have been more practical than a tip about asking for vegetarian choices in restaurants. The advice about meeting requirements for essential fatty acids seems pretty weak. And I’m not entirely sure why they chose to waste an entire tip on vitamin E. (Vegetarians consume between 50 and 100 percent more vitamin E than omnivores.)
So if someone wants to know more about the practical and nutritional aspects of planning vegetarian or vegan diets, this is not the fact sheet I’m going to give them. But if there are any lingering questions about whether vegan diets can be safe, this should put them to rest. You can definitely meet all of your nutrient needs without any animal foods. The USDA says so.