I have recently had a flood of requests to clarify what it takes to create a healthy vegetarian diet. Not only are more and more adults choosing to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, but teens and pre-teens are adopting the practice in record numbers as well. For example, a friend of mine’s pre-teen daughter, a life-long “picky eater”, has decided to become vegetarian and limit her food choices to fruit, vegetables, crackers, and pasta. Yikes! This is far from the balanced diet required for healthy growth and development, thereby making “vegetarianism” a potentially dangerous practice for an uninformed, growing girl.
The vegetarian diet is a challenging topic to address in a forum such as this since becoming vegetarian can mean different things to different people— some folks are raised vegetarian for religious or cultural reasons, whereas others choose a vegetarian lifestyle during their teen or adult years as a means of weight control, healthier living, in support of animal rights, or for environmental concerns, to name a few. Today, vegetarianism has taken on many forms and it is essential for an individual wishing to become vegetarian to decide which practice he or she will follow: vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, pesce vegetarian, or flexitarian. Say what? Let me explain:
Traditionally, a “true vegetarian”, or vegan, is someone who does not eat meat (i.e. animal flesh) of any kind nor any foods containing animal products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, or butter. This strict form of vegetarianism is the most challenging and the avoidance of ALL animal foods limits one’s intake of complete proteins, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, putting one at nutritional risk when not implemented properly. A nutritionally adequate vegan diet should include soy products, such as tofu, edamame, soymilk, and soy yogurt, which contain all essential amino acids to support bodily growth and repair (known as “complete” proteins); vitamin B12 and iron-fortified whole grain products (such as cereal, breads, rice); calcium-rich foods, such as fortified juice and soy milk, as well as almonds, green vegetables, and broccoli; legumes, such as kidney beans and lentils; fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. When you are eating vegan, you need to make sure that most of your choices are natural, nutrient-rich, whole foods, as opposed to vegan “junk foods” containing little or no nutrition whatsoever. If a number of essential food items listed above are also avoided, vitamin and mineral supplementation is generally required. If you are considering the vegan lifestyle, it is best to seek personalized advice from a dietitian in order to ensure nutritional adequacy for yourself and your family, rather than simply relying on the advice dispensed in this article.
The most common practice is as a lacto-ovo vegetarian—avoiding all animal flesh (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish), but including animal products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt (lacto) and eggs (ovo) in the daily diet. Provided one is consuming dairy products and eggs on a regular basis, there is little need for concern over adequate protein intake, as animal proteins are “complete”, providing all essential amino acids for proper bodily growth and repair. This form of vegetarianism is also likely to meet one’s nutritional needs for vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, and zinc provided fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, whole grains, nuts, seeds, soy, and legumes are included as well. To ensure adequate iron intake, incorporate plenty of iron-fortified cereals, breads, and grains, legumes, seeds, green-leafy vegetables, and/or dried fruit. Including a source of vitamin C with these foods, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, or bell peppers, allows for better iron absorption. Less common variations on this form of vegetarianism is an ovo-vegetarian who consumes eggs, but no animal flesh or milk products, or a lacto-vegetarian who consumes milk products, but no animal flesh or egg products.
Someone who adopts a lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle while including fish and/or seafood on a regular basis is considered pesce-vegetarian. And, finally, the ever-expanding group of folks who limit their meat choices to lean chicken, turkey, and fish, while excluding “red meats” (such as beef, pork, and lamb) are considered flexitarians, as they are not truly vegetarian by definition, but are choosing to avoid specific animal meats and/or products.
In summary, if you are an adult looking to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, first give some thought to the type of vegetarianism you desire to practice. Next, plan to incorporate a wide variety of nutritious foods that fit within your chosen regime on a regular basis. If you admit to being a “picky eater” or simply do not enjoy a wide variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains, then it may be best to sit down with a nutrition professional, such as myself, to develop a personalized meal plan to best meet your needs.
Now, if you are a parent of a child or teen looking to become vegetarian, it is important to discuss his or her reasons for desiring a vegetarian lifestyle and to review the wide variety of vegetarian practices that exist today. Many teens consider vegetarianism as an opportunity for weight loss or as a “legitimate excuse” for picky or disordered eating practices, without considering the potential nutritional or growth implications. If you suspect an eating disorder, it is best to consult a nutrition professional to develop a healthy eating plan within the chosen vegetarian regime to nip any unhealthy practices in the bud… I tend to encourage the lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle for most children and teens, as it is generally the easiest to follow and contains the widest variety of nutrients that growing bodies need. Again, when dealing with very restricted picky-eaters, it is best to meet with a dietitian to develop a satisfactory eating plan.
If you would like to set up an appointment to develop a healthy vegetarian meal plan for yourself or your child, call me at 248-592-0875 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Live well! Eat well!