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What is a vegetarian?
In a very general sense, a vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat. But that definition is too simple. There are several kinds of vegetarian diets:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat milk products—such as milk, cheese, and yogurt—and eggs, but no meat, poultry, seafood, or fish. "Lacto" means "milk." "Ovo" means eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat milk products, but not eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, or fish.
- Vegans (say "VEE-guns" or "VAY-guns") are total vegetarians. They eat only plant foods. They don't eat food that comes from animals in any way, including milk products, eggs, honey, and gelatin (which comes from bones and other animal tissue).
Many people are semi-vegetarian—most of the diet is vegetarian, but sometimes they may eat meat, poultry, seafood, fish, and/or eggs.
There are many reasons why some people choose vegetarian diets:
- A vegetarian diet can be healthier than other diets.
- Some people think it's wrong to use animals for food.
- Some religions forbid eating meat.
- A vegetarian diet can cost less than a diet that includes meat.
- Eating less meat can be better for the environment, because most meat is commercially farmed.
- Some people don't like the taste of meat.
Are vegetarian diets healthy?
If properly planned, vegetarian diets can provide all the nutrients you need. In addition to that, being a vegetarian can actually be better for you. In general, vegetarians:footnote 1
- Weigh less than people who eat meat.
- Are less likely to die of heart disease.
- Have lower cholesterol levels.
- Are less likely to get:
Good health could be related to a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Keep a balance
As a vegetarian, you can still eat a balanced diet.
- Substitutes for 1 oz (28 g) of meat:
- ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils
- 1 egg or 2 egg whites, or ¼ cup egg substitute
- ½ oz (1 Tbsp) nuts or seeds
- ¼ cup tofu or tempeh
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter
- If you do not use milk, use soy milk fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Count 1 cup (8 fl oz) as one serving. You can also use fortified soy cheese or soy yogurt.
How can vegetarians eat a balanced diet?
You may be worried that you won't get all the nutrients you need with a vegetarian diet. But as long as you eat a variety of foods, there are only a few things you need to pay special attention to.
- Calcium for vegetarians who don't eat milk products. If you don't get your calcium from milk products, you need to eat a lot of other calcium-rich foods. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk, and orange juice are good choices. Calcium-fortified means that the manufacturer has added calcium to the food. Other foods that have calcium include certain legumes, certain leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tofu. If you don't use calcium-fortified foods, ask your doctor if you should take a daily calcium supplement.
- Vitamin D for vegetarians who don't eat milk products. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important to keep bones strong. Vegetarians who don't eat milk products can use fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals.
- Iron. Getting enough iron is not a problem for vegetarians who take care to eat a wide variety of food. Our bodies don't absorb iron from plant foods as well as they absorb iron from meats. So it's important for vegetarians to regularly eat iron-rich foods. Vegetarian iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products. And eating foods rich in vitamin C will help your body absorb iron.
- Vitamin B12 for vegans. Vitamin B12 comes from animal sources only. If you are a vegan, you'll need to rely on food that is fortified with this vitamin (for example, soy milk and breakfast cereals) or take supplements. This is especially important for vegan women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Like everyone else, vegetarians also need to make sure they get the following nutrients:
- Protein. When considering a vegetarian diet, many people worry that they will not get enough protein. But eating a wide variety of protein-rich foods such as soy products, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds will give you the protein you need.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. If you don't eat fish or eggs, you need to find other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, certain leafy green vegetables, soybean oil, and canola oil.
- Zinc. Your body absorbs zinc better when it comes from meat than when it comes from plants. But vegetarians don't usually have a problem getting enough zinc if they eat lots of other foods that are good sources of zinc, including whole-grain breads, cooked dried beans and lentils, soy foods, and vegetables.
Is it safe for children to be vegetarians?
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy for children. Young vegan children tend to be slightly smaller but still within normal growth ranges. And they tend to catch up to other children in size as they get older.
If you are raising a child on a vegetarian diet, consider the following:
- Babies who get only breast milk should have supplements of iron after the age of 4 to 6 months. (This is not necessary if you add iron-fortified infant cereal to the child's diet at this age.)
- A vitamin D supplement may be appropriate for children under 1 year of age. Talk with your doctor about how much and what sources of vitamin D are right for your child.
- Breastfed babies of vegan mothers need vitamin B12 supplements if the mother's diet is not fortified.
- Children younger than 2 years need the extra fat in whole milk for brain and nerve development. Don't give them low-fat or fat-free milk. If you are using soy milk instead of cow's milk, make sure that it's full-fat soy milk, and talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure your child is getting enough fat.
- Vegan diets can contain a lot of fiber. Fiber is great because it fills you up without adding a lot of calories. But children have small stomachs, and the fiber they eat can fill them up before they get enough calories. Frequent meals and snacks—with plenty of cereals, legumes, and nuts—will help children get the energy and nutrients they need for healthy growth.
What if your teenager decides to become a vegetarian?
With careful planning, a vegetarian diet can be very healthy for teens. In fact, it can be a great way to get them into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.
If your teen decides to become a vegetarian, teach him or her how to plan meals to get all the right nutrients every day. Teens need calcium and vitamin D. And iron is especially important for teen girls who are menstruating. Talk with your doctor about how much of these vitamins and minerals your child needs. Ask if your teen needs to take a daily supplement.
You may want him or her to talk to a registered dietitian to learn how to plan a healthy vegetarian diet.
It's important to find out why your teen wants to follow a vegetarian diet. Some teens adopt a vegetarian diet as a way to lose weight, and "being a vegetarian" can hide an eating disorder like anorexia.
Current as of: May 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
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