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, dairy, gelatin, or honey.

There are different types of vegetarians:

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

Pesci–vegetarian: Pesci–vegetarians, or “pescatarians” eat fish, dairy, and eggs but don’t eat poultry or any other meats.

Lacto–ovo vegetarian: Lacto–ovo vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish or poultry, 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, fish, poultry or eggs, but do eat dairy products.
  • Ovo–vegetarian: Ovo–vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish, poultry or dairy, but do eat eggs.

Vegan: Vegans avoid eating any animal products or animal-derived ingredients that can be found in processed foods. They don’t eat meat of any kind, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin.

Some vegans (and some other types of vegetarians) choose not to wear clothes containing animal products, such as leather, wool, or silk, or use products such as lotion or 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 people choose to become a vegetarian for environmental, ethical (animal rights), and/or health reasons. You may relate to many of these reasons or have different reasons altogether. Deciding to become vegetarian is a personal choice.

Are vegetarian diets healthy?

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

Macronutrients:

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 and minerals 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, oats, 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 need to be sure to substitute protein-containing vegetarian foods when replacing meat. Nuts, nut butters (including peanut butter, almond butter, and sunflower seed butter), soy foods (such as tofu, soy milk, soy yogurt, tempeh, and edamame), legumes (such as beans, peas, hummus, and lentils), meat substitutes (such as veggie burgers or seitan), dairy foods (such as milk, yogurt, and cheese), and eggs all provide protein.

Minerals:

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, seeds, 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. Since plant–based iron is not absorbed as well as iron found in meat, adding vitamin C can help your body to absorb iron better. When you are eating plant-based iron foods, try to maximize the amount of iron you can absorb by including foods rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits and certain vegetables such as tomatoes).

Calcium is needed to build strong bones. Calcium is found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt (there is more calcium found in traditional yogurt compared to greek yogurt), and cheese. You can also find calcium in broccoli, butternut squash, collard greens, black beans, white beans, soybeans, and tofu. However, plant sources of calcium have less calcium per serving and are more difficult for our bodies to absorb compared to dairy products. Some foods that aren’t naturally high in calcium have calcium added to them; these foods are called “calcium–fortified.” Soy milk, enriched rice milk, orange juice, cereal, and cereal bars are a few examples. If you choose to not eat dairy, eating calcium fortified foods is a great way to ensure you are eating enough calcium. Look at the Nutrition Facts Label to find out which brands are highest in calcium.

Vitamins:

Vitamin D is needed to absorb the calcium you eat and is necessary for strong bones. You can get vitamin D from foods, such as fortified dairy or soy milk products, fortified orange juice, egg yolks; or your body can make Vitamin D 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 from sunshine alone. To figure out if you’re getting enough Vitamin D from the sun, 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. When you are able to make vitamin D from the sun, you only need about 15 minutes of sun exposure to meet your needs for the day – after that, lather up with sunblock!

Vitamin B12 is needed for your brain and nervous system to function. Vitamin B12 or “cobalamin,” is only found in animal foods, so vegans must eat food fortified with B12. For vegetarians who are not vegans, examples of foods with B12 include cow’s milk and eggs. For individuals who follow a vegan diet, foods like fortified-nutritional yeast flakes, fortified soy milk, and fortified cereals are good sources of B12. Your health care provider or dietitian may also recommend taking a B12 supplement to make sure your body gets enough of this vitamin.

Omega–3 Fatty Acids are essential fatty acids; “essential” means you need to eat these fats from your diet since your body is not able to make them on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids help to control inflammation and help to prevent heart disease. Vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat eggs or fatty fish like salmon must include other sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, 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. Check the label of your salt before you buy it to make sure it is iodized. If you choose to use sea salt, be sure to look for brands that specify they are iodized.

How can I reassure my parents that I can still be healthy while following a vegetarian diet?

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.

Here are some ideas for kitchen staples that will be helpful when following a vegetarian diet:

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. As always, make sure you consult with your doctor or dietitian before changing your diet to ensure you are eating enough of all the nutrients you need!

*Menus are based on a 2000-calorie diet as an example. You may need more or less than this depending on your age and activity level.

**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