How to Be a Healthy Vegetarian

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A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat, including beef, chicken, pork, or fish and may or may not choose to eat other animal products such as eggs, milk, gelatin, or honey.

There are different types of vegetarians:

Flexitarian: Flexitarians are also known as semi–vegetarians. They avoid animal products most of the time, but will occasionally eat fish or meat.

Pesci–vegetarian: Pesci–vegetarians eat fish, dairy, and eggs but don’t eat meat or poultry.

Lacto–ovo vegetarian: Lacto–ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, but do eat eggs and dairy products (ovo means eggs and lacto means dairy). This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.

Lacto vegetarian: Lacto vegetarians don’t eat meat or eggs, but do eat dairy products.

Ovo vegetarian: Ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat or dairy, but do eat eggs.

Vegan: Vegans avoid eating any animal products. They don’t eat any meat products, milk, cheese, eggs, honey, or gelatin. Many vegans (and some other types of vegetarians) choose not to wear clothes containing animal products, such as leather, wool, or silk, or wear makeup that may have been tested on animals.

Why do people decide to be vegetarian?

People decide to become a vegetarian for many reasons. Some common motivators include the environment, animal rights, and health. You may have different reasons. Deciding to become vegetarian is an individual decision.

Are vegetarian diets healthy?

Vegetarian diets can be very healthy and may even lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. However, eating a balanced diet when you are vegetarian usually requires a little extra attention. Because vegetarians take out certain foods from their diets, they often need to work to add in foods that will provide the nutrients found in meat products. By eating a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products, and whole grains, vegetarians can get nutrients from non–meat sources. Vegetarians, especially vegans, need to pay attention getting enough iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega–3 fatty acids.

Carbohydrates provide energy and vitamins for your brain and muscles. Grain products, especially whole grains, are very important because they provide the carbohydrate, fiber, and many vitamins that your body needs. Vegetarians should be sure to eat a variety of whole grains such as whole wheat bread, pasta and tortillas, brown rice, bulgur, and quinoa.

Fat is needed by your body to stay healthy. Fat provides essential fatty acids and helps your body absorb certain vitamins. Excellent sources of healthy fats include nuts or nut butters, oils, and avocados.

Protein is needed for your muscles to grow. Vegetarians have to be careful not to just cut meat out of their diet, but to replace the meat with high–protein vegetarian foods. Nuts, nut butters (including peanut butter, almond butter, and sun butter), soy foods (such as tofu, soy milk, and edamame), legumes (such as beans, peas, hummus, and lentils), dairy foods (such as milk, yogurt, and cheese), and eggs all provide protein.

Zinc is important for growth and your immune system. Zinc is found in whole grains (refined grains such as bread or pasta made from white flour or white rice are not sources of zinc), fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products, soy foods, nuts, and legumes.

Iron is important for your blood and is found in beans, seeds, soybeans, tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and dried fruit such as apricots, figs, or prunes. Plant–based iron is different from the iron found in meat and it’s not absorbed as well by your body. Adding vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, so it’s important to eat foods rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits) and certain vegetables (such as tomatoes) as well.

Calcium is required to build strong bones. Calcium is found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. You can also find plant sources of calcium such as broccoli, butternut squash, collard greens, black beans, white beans, soybeans, and tofu. Plant sources of calcium have less calcium per serving than dairy products and fortified foods. Some foods aren’t naturally high in calcium but have calcium added to them; these foods are called calcium–fortified. Some products such as soy milk, enriched rice milk, orange juices, cereals, and cereal bars are calcium fortified. Look at the Nutrition Facts Label to find out which brands are highest in calcium.

Vitamin D is needed to absorb the calcium you eat and is necessary for strong bones. You can get vitamin D from the foods you eat, such as fortified dairy or soy milk products, fortified orange juice, egg yolks, or your body can make it from the sun. If you live in a place that gets very little sunshine, especially during the winter months, it’s harder to get enough vitamin D. To figure out if you live in one of these places, look at a map of the United States and imagine a line running between San Francisco and Philadelphia. If you live north of this line, it’s necessary for you (during the winter) to get your daily intake of vitamin D through food or supplements.

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, so vegans must eat food fortified with B12. Examples include cow’s milk, eggs, nutritional yeast flakes, fortified soy milk, and fortified cereals. Your health care provider or nutritionist may also recommend supplemental vitamin B12 to make sure your body gets enough.

Omega–3 Fatty Acids are essential fatty acids. Vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat eggs must include other sources. You can find omega–3 fatty acids in walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, soybeans, or tofu.

Iodine is a mineral that helps your body’s metabolism. Plant–based diets can be low in iodine, so vegans should try to use iodized salt in recipes that call for salt. Seaweed (the type that wraps up sushi) is also a good source of iodine.

How can I convince my parents that being a vegetarian is healthy and right for me?

Your parents may be worried that you are choosing to follow a vegetarian diet without knowing how to do it in a healthy way. If you can explain your plans to stay healthy and your reasons for wanting to become a vegetarian, your parents may be more likely to understand. You still might need to give them time to accept your new diet. Read vegetarian cookbooks or nutritional information with your parents and offer to help with the shopping and cooking.

Essential foods for a vegetarian kitchen

What are some healthy meals that I can prepare?

Refer to our sample menu suggestions to get ideas about incorporating enough protein and other nutrients into your vegetarian diet. You can also look at vegetarian cookbooks or websites for more ideas.

*Menus are based on a 2000-calorie diet.

**Menu 1 illustrates use of a food (Total® cereal) that is fortified with 100% the recommended intake of vitamin B12 and the minerals zinc and iron, nutrients that are more difficult to get when a teen is not eating meat. On day two, it may be necessary to supplement intake with a standard Multivitamin.

Vegetarian Sample Menu 1 Vegetarian Sample Menu 2 Additional Resources