Can I Eat All I Want on a Vegetarian Diet?
No matter what the some might claim, calories count. You cannot eat unlimited pasta with cheese, ice cream, and mashed potatoes (all vegetarian dishes) without gaining weight.
You do get larger portions of vegetarian foods, because many are lower in calories than animal foods like hamburgers, ham, and pork. But you still have to eat fewer calories than you burn each day to lose weight.
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.
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 fat.
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 vegetarian diet:
- 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 inadequate.
- 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.