Why Do People Become Vegetarians?
For much of the world, vegetarianism is largely a matter of
economics: Meat costs a lot more than, say, beans or rice, so meat
becomes a special-occasion dish (if it's eaten at all). Even where meat
is more plentiful, it's still used in moderation, often providing a side
note to a meal rather than taking center stage.
In countries like the United States where meat is not as expensive,
though, people often choose to be vegetarians for reasons other than
cost. Parental preferences, religious or other beliefs, and health
issues are among the most common reasons for choosing to be a
vegetarian. Many people choose a vegetarian diet out of concern over
animal rights or the environment. And lots of people have more than one
reason for choosing vegetarianism.
Vegetarian and Semi-Vegetarian Diets
Different people follow different forms of vegetarianism. A true vegetarian eats no meat at all, including chicken and fish. A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy products and eggs, but excludes meat, fish, and poultry. It follows, then, that a lacto vegetarian eats dairy products but not eggs, whereas an ovo vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.
A stricter form of vegetarianism is veganism
-gun-izm). Not only are eggs and dairy products excluded from a vegan diet, so are animal products like honey and gelatin.
Some macrobiotic diets fall into the vegan category.
Macrobiotic diets restrict not only animal products but also refined
and processed foods, foods with preservatives, and foods that contain
caffeine or other stimulants.
Following a macrobiotic or vegan diet could lead to nutritional
deficiencies in some people. Teens need to be sure their diets include
enough nutrients to fuel growth, particularly protein and calcium. If
you're interested in following a vegan or macrobiotic diet it's a good
idea to talk to a registered dietitian. He or she can help you design
meal plans that include adequate vitamins and minerals.
Some people consider themselves semi-vegetarians and
eat fish and maybe a small amount of poultry as part of a diet that's
primarily made up of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, seeds, and
nuts. A pesci-vegetarian eats fish, but not poultry.
Are These Diets OK for Teens?
In the past, choosing not to eat meat or animal-based foods was
considered unusual in the United States. Times and attitudes have
changed dramatically, however. Vegetarians are still a minority in the
United States, but a large and growing one. The American Dietetic
Association (ADA) has officially endorsed vegetarianism, stating
"appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or
vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide
health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
So what does this mean for you? If you're already a vegetarian, or
are thinking of becoming one, you're in good company. There are more
choices in the supermarket than ever before, and an increasing number of
restaurants and schools are providing vegetarian options — way beyond a
basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
If you're choosing a vegetarian diet, the most important thing you
can do is to educate yourself. That's why the ADA says that a vegetarian
diet needs to be "appropriately planned." Simply dropping certain foods
from your diet isn't the way to go if you're interested in maintaining
good health, a high energy level, and strong muscles and bones.
Vegetarians have to be careful to include the following key nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet:
- vitamin D
- vitamin B12
If meat, fish, dairy products, and/or eggs are not going to be part
of your diet, you'll need to know how to get enough of these nutrients,
or you may need to take a daily multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.
Sea vegetables like nori, wakame, and dulse are very high in iron.
Less exotic but still good options are iron-fortified breakfast cereals,
legumes (chickpeas, lentils, and baked beans), soybeans and tofu, dried
fruit (raisins and figs), pumpkin seeds, broccoli, and blackstrap
molasses. Eating these foods along with a food high in vitamin C (citrus
fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli) will help you to absorb the
Girls need to be particularly concerned about getting adequate iron
because some iron is lost during menstruation. Some girls who are
vegetarians may not get adequate iron from vegetable sources and they
may require a daily supplement. Check with your doctor about your own
Milk and yogurt are tops if you're eating dairy products — although
vegetarians will want to look for yogurt that does not contain the meat
byproduct gelatin. Tofu, fortified soy milk, calcium-fortified orange
juice, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs are also excellent ways
for vegetarians (and vegans) to get calcium. Remember that as a teen
you're building up your bones for the rest of your life.
Because women have a greater risk for getting osteoporosis (weak
bones) as adults, it's particularly important for girls to make sure
they get enough calcium. Again, taking a supplement may be necessary to
We need vitamin D to get calcium into our bones. Your body
manufactures vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Cow's milk
is top on the list for food sources of this vitamin. Vegans can try
fortified soy milk and fortified breakfast cereals.
Some people may need a supplement that includes vitamin D, especially
during the winter months. Everyone should have some exposure to the sun
to help the body produce vitamin D.
Before, it was thought that vegetarians needed to combine incomplete
plant proteins in one meal — like red beans and rice — to make the type
of complete proteins found in meat. We now know that it's not that
complicated. Current recommendations are that vegetarians eat a wide
variety of foods during the course of a day.
Eggs and dairy products are good sources of protein, but also try
nuts, peanut butter, tofu, beans, seeds, soy milk, grains, cereals, and
vegetables to get all the protein your body needs.
B12 is an essential vitamin found only in animal products, including
eggs and dairy. Fortified soy milk and fortified breakfast cereals also
have this important vitamin. It's hard to get enough vitamin B12 in your
diet if you are vegan, so a supplement may be needed.
If you're not eating dairy foods, make sure fortified cereals, dried
beans, nuts, and soy products like tofu and tempeh are part of your diet
so you can meet your daily requirement for this important mineral.
Fat, Calories, and Fiber
In addition to vitamins and minerals, vegetarians need to keep an eye
on their total intake of calories and fat. Vegetarian diets tend to be
high in fiber and low in fat and calories. That may be good for people
who need to lose weight or lower their cholesterol but it can be a
problem for kids and teens who are still growing and people who are
already at a healthy weight.
Some vegetarians (especially vegans) may not get enough omega-3 fatty
acids. Omega-3 fats are good for heart health and are found in fish and
eggs. Some products, such as soy milk and breakfast bars, are fortified
with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid.
High-fiber diets tend to be more filling, and as a result strict
vegetarians may feel full before they've eaten enough calories to keep
their bodies healthy and strong. It's a good idea to let your doctor
know that you're a vegetarian so that he or she can keep on eye on your
growth and make sure you're still getting adequate amounts of calories
Getting Some Guidance
If you're thinking about becoming a vegetarian, consider making
an appointment to talk with a registered dietitian who can go over lists
of foods that would give you the nutrients you need. A dietitian
can discuss ways to prevent conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia
that you might be at an increased risk for if you stop eating meat.
Also, remember to take a daily standard multivitamin, just in case you miss getting enough vitamins or minerals that day.
Tips for Dining Out
Eating at restaurants can be difficult for vegetarians sometimes, but
if you do eat fish, you can usually find something suitable on the
menu. If not, opt for salad and an appetizer or two — or ask if the meat
can be removed. Even fast-food places sometimes have vegetarian
choices, such as bean tacos and burritos, veggie burgers, and soy cheese
Vegetarians can opt for pasta, along with plenty of vegetables,
grains, and fruits. You may also find that the veggie burgers, hot dogs,
and chicken substitutes available in your local grocery store taste
very much like the real thing. Try the ground meat substitute as
a stand-in for beef in foods like tacos and spaghetti sauce.
Regardless of whether you choose a vegetarian way of life, it's
always a healthy idea to eat a wide variety of foods and try out new
foods when you can.