Is A Vegetarian Diet For Me?
Is a Vegetarian Diet Balanced?
A well-planned vegetarian diet -- just like any diet -- can be nutritionally
balanced, according to the American Dietetic Association. But you have to plan
the diet to meet your nutrient needs for growth and development.
Nutrients are compounds found in foods that support the body's repair,
growth, and wellness. They include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential
fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
A deficiency of nutrients can lead to illness. Vegetarians often use
fortified foods or dietary supplements (especially calcium, vitamin B-12, iron
and folate) to make sure they get proper nourishment, especially nutrients
they'd normally get in animal food.
Nutrition and the Vegetarian Diet
Many parents worry about their teenage vegetarians. But plant foods have
potent phytochemicals, the biologically active substances that give plants
their deep colors, flavors, and odors. These phytochemicals help protect
against disease, too. Vegetarians have a much lower rate of heart disease,
diabetes, and hypertension -- all serious conditions linked to excess body
If your diet is well-planned, you should get most of the nutrients necessary
for good health. Let's look at a few key nutrients and how to get them in a
- Protein. Many vegetarian teens enjoy black bean "burgers"
with cheese; soy chicken nuggets; and pizza with vegetables and high-protein
cheese. Other protein sources include nuts and nut butters, eggs, dairy
products (like yogurt, cheese, milk, and cottage cheese), legumes (like
chickpeas, kidney beans, and black beans), soy products, cereal with milk,
pasta, and whole grain breads and pasta.
- Vitamin B12. This is one vitamin you may need to supplement, so it's
important to talk to your doctor. Meat and dairy products provide the only
dietary source of B12. Inadequate vitamin B12 intake eventually leads to
anemia. You can get B12 by drinking fortified soymilk or eating fortified
nutritional yeast (sprinkled on your salad or popcorn), ready-to-eat cereals,
and soy products. Vitamin B-12 is also in most multivitamins
- Vitamin D. Get some sunshine! Exposure to the sun helps the body
make vitamin D. Other sources include fortified milk for vegetarians, and
fortified soymilk for vegans. Vitamin D is in most multivitamins.
- Iron. Vegetarians, especially girls who menstruate, are at greater
risk for iron deficiency than those who consume animal products. Some good
choices of iron for vegetarians include iron-fortified breads and cereals,
legumes, soybeans, dried fruit (raisins, prunes, apricots), blackstrap
molasses, and broccoli. Check with your doctor about supplementation to be
safe. Women are particularly at risk for anemia if their intake is
- Calcium. During the teen years, you need to get enough calcium to
ensure peak bone mass and prevent fractures later. Vegetarians can get plenty
of calcium from dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt). You can drink
calcium-fortified juices and soymilk, too. Other nondairy calcium sources
include legumes (white beans, soybeans), Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli,
kale, and Swiss chard. If you're coming up short on calcium, talk to your
doctor about supplementation. You can only build bone mass until about age 30.
After that you slowly start losing bone.
- Zinc. Zinc is plentiful in both animal and plant foods. Vegetarians
can get zinc from milk and milk products, whole grains, legumes, wheat germ,
and nuts. Vegans get zinc from cereals, legumes, nuts, and soy products. It's
important to read labels on fortified foods to ensure you get enough zinc.