Is A Vegetarian Diet For Me?

When "Elizabeth" (not her real name) started college, she ate a typical, animal-based diet. Bacon, cheeseburgers, pizza, and lasagna were her mainstays. In her sophomore year, Elizabeth switched to a vegetarian diet, saying she'd learned so much about animal rights at school that she could no longer eat meat.

Now a senior in law school, Elizabeth is extremely health conscious and an advocate for animal legal rights. She's been a vegan (eating no meat or animal byproducts) for five years.

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian diet is a diet based on plants -- not meat, fish, or fowl. Vegetarian diets vary, depending on how many foods of animal origin are included. Here are some of the popular types:

  • Quasi-vegetarian. The diet includes fish and poultry but not red meat.
  • Pescatarian. The diet includes plants and fish.
  • Semi-vegetarian. Meat occasionally is included in the diet. Some semi-vegetarians may not eat red meat but may eat fish and perhaps chicken.
  • Lacto-ovovegetarian (lacto - dairy; ovo - eggs). The diet includes eggs, milk, and milk products but no meat or fish is consumed.
  • Lactovegetarian. Milk and milk products are included in the diet, but not eggs or meat or fish.
  • Vegan. The diet excludes all fish and animal products, including eggs, milk, and milk products.

Can I Lose Weight on a Vegetarian Diet?

Vegetarians usually weigh less than non-vegetarians. In one study, researchers found that while obesity is growing in the United States, it only affects 0% to 6% of vegetarians. Other studies show that vegetarian children tend to be leaner than children who eat animal foods.

The vegetarian's lower average body weight may be linked to the high fiber content of plant foods. Plant fiber fills you up quickly, and can result in less snacking and binging later in the day.

What Can I Eat on a Vegetarian Diet?

Strict vegetarians enjoy a variety of delicious foods -- just not meat! Examples include whole grain breads, enriched cereals, nuts, peanut butter, eggs, legumes and soy products, tofu, vegetables and fruits, pasta and rice, and low-fat dairy products.

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.

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 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.

Before You Begin

Sometimes teens call themselves "vegetarians," but eat an unbalanced diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French fries, leaving their bodies nutritionally deprived. Before you start a vegetarian diet, it's a good idea to talk to your primary health care practitioner or a registered dietitian.

The years between 13 and 19 are especially important for growth and development. Learn more about your special nutritional requirements before you add or exclude any food or groups of foods.