Eating Well With A Vegetarian Diet
Ages One and Up

Over the last several decades, the number of people eating vegetarian diets has dramatically increased. Many parents following vegetarian diets feed their children with similarly.

For centuries, many cultural and ethnic groups have followed traditional vegetarian diets and remained in good health. Some aspects of vegetarian diets can be beneficial and in accordance with recent dietary guidelines such as increased dietary fiber and lower saturated fat intake. However, when individuals take up eating patterns that are non-traditional for their culture, problems can arise. The dietary patterns of these vegetarians may not be healthy.  For example, food intake may be haphazard, may lack variety, and particularly for children and teenagers, may be low in calories and certain necessary nutrients.

What is a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarian diets consist solely or mainly of plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Eggs and dairy products may both be included in some diets as well.

Generally, vegetarian diets can be classified as:

Strict vegetarian or vegan diet which completely excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Lactovegetarian diet which excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, but includes dairy products.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet which excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but includes eggs and dairy products.

Who can follow the vegetarian diet?

Well-planned vegan and lacto- or ovo-vegetarian diets can be healthful and appropriate.  Children and teens have relatively high nutritional needs due to their rapid growth. These needs can be met with a carefully planned vegetarian diet.

Are vegetarian diets adequate and well balanced?

Vegetarian diets can be healthful and balanced, if they are properly planned to provide sufficient calories and a wide variety of foods. However, vegetarian diets might potentially place one at risk for insufficient intake of calories, protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and zinc.

Calories Vegetarian diets, especially the vegan diet, tend to be "bulky" or filling.  Some high calorie foods and frequent snacks are necessary to help growing children meet their high calorie needs.

Protein All essential amino acids (protein building blocks) can be found in vegetable sources but no single vegetable source has them all. Therefore, combinations of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds and nuts, must be consumed over the course of a day. Soy protein is a particularly good vegetable protein source but still is not complete by itself.

Calcium Dairy products generally supply the greatest amounts of calcium and so the lacto- and lacto-ovovegetarian diets can supply sufficient calcium.  It is difficult to achieve the high calcium needs of children and teenagers with a strict vegan diet. A possible option is to obtain calcium from a calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, or calcium-fortified cereals and juices. Good plant sources of calcium are the dark, leafy vegetables (collard greens, turnip greens, kale, bok choy, mustard greens and watercress), broccoli, beans, chickpeas, almonds, dried figs, blackstrap molasses, and calcium-processed tofu.

Iron The iron in meat is more readily absorbed than the iron from plants. You can help the body absorb more plant iron by eating foods with vitamin C along with the iron-rich foods. Foods that are high in vitamin C include citrus fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes, and green pepper. Good plant sources of iron-containing foods include: beans, chick peas, dark green vegetables of spinach and beet greens, dried fruits, prune juice, blackstrap molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy bean, iron-fortified cereals and breads, and some veggie burgers (check the label).

Vitamin B12 This vitamin is not produced by plants. For diets that include dairy products or eggs, the intake of vitamin B12 usually is adequate. The strict vegan diet must include vitamin B12 fortified foods such as vitamin B12-fortified breakfast cereals, soy beverages, TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein or Textured Soya Protein), or some brands of yeast extracts (check the label). A vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supplement may be considered and is necessary for the nursing mother on a vegan diet.

Vitamin D Foods naturally high in vitamin D are primarily animal foods. Dairy products in the United States are fortified with vitamin D. Our bodies can make vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Those who do not consume dairy products or have limited sunlight exposure may need to consider a vitamin D supplement of no more than 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).

Zinc  Good plant sources include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. Dairy products and eggs are also good sources of zinc.

How can a vegetarian diet be planned?

The guidelines expressed in the Food Guide Pyramid for Vegetarians (Figure 1) may assist you in planning a well-balanced vegetarian diet. There are six groups of food within a vegetarian diet: (1) Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta Group; (2) Vegetable Group; (3) Fruit Group; (4) Dry Beans, Nuts, Seeds and Eggs (Meat Substitutes) Group; (5) Milk, Yogurt and Cheese Group; and (6) Fats, Oils and Sweets. For balance and variety, one should eat from all the above food groups, especially the first five groups, over the course of a day.

What makes a serving and how many servings are needed each day?

The following Food Guide is based on the Food Guide Pyramid for Vegetarians (Table 1) and may assist your meal planning.

Table 1

*Vegetarian diets which do not include milk, yogurt or cheese need to substitute with similar portions of other calcium rich foods such as calcium-fortified soy or rice milk; calcium supplements and the other calcium sources listed in the text can also be used

Food Chart

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