If you ask people who do not eat meat, fish, and poultry, “What is a vegetarian diet?” and “Why are you a vegetarian?” you will get a variety of answers. Historically, people chose to be vegetarians largely because meat was not available or because of religious or philosophical beliefs. In the 21st century people have more reasons for becoming vegetarian. They may believe it is wrong to slaughter animals for food or that raising meat for food is not a sustainable way to grow food for the ballooning world population. Many people choose to be vegetarians because they believe it is healthier, prefer the food, or feel better when they do not eat meat products. So many people are choosing the non-meat option that one in forty people in the United States and one in twenty-five in Canada are vegetarians.
Becoming a vegetarian is not just about eliminating animals from the diet. Vegetarians must find alternative ways to get the nutrients that that meat eaters get from animals. They have to do thoughtful food planning to make sure their nutritional needs are met.
Types of Vegetarians
Not all vegetarians eat the same food. Fruitarians eat fruits, nuts, honey, and vegetable oil. Vegans eat only plant-based foods, and shun using animal products even for shoes, clothing, pillows, etc. Lactovegetarians eat vegetables and dairy products. Add eggs, and you have the diet of a lactoovovegetarian. The more variety there is in a vegetarian diet, the easier it is to meet basic nutritional needs. Most people who identify as vegetarians eat some dairy and egg products. Veganism, however, is becoming increasingly popular.
Restaurants, food producers, and cookbooks have been keeping up with dietary choices people are making. With tasty herbs and spices and many different types of vegetables and grains, vegetarian menus can please any palate. In fact, the National Restaurant Association found that 20 percent of the restaurant-goers it surveyed wanted a vegetarian option on the menu.
What are Alternative Sources of Nutrients for Vegetarians?
Vegan diets can lack the high quality proteins and other nutrients that animal products bring to the diet. Vegans need to find other sources of amino acids, micronutrients, riboflavin, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, iron, zinc, iodide and calcium. Fortified soymilk is a good source of vitamin B-12. Green leafy vegetables, yeast, whole grains and legumes provide riboflavin. Certain fortified foods, such as soymilk, rice milk, and margarine, as well as exposure to sun provide vitamin D.
Vegans can get enough iron from legumes, dried fruits and nuts, and whole grain breakfast cereals, but they need to eat a good source of vitamin C to increase the body’s absorption of the iron. Cooking with iron pots and pans also increases the intake of iron. Breads and fortified grains supply zinc.
Vegetarians who eat dairy can get their calcium needs met with milk, yogurt, and cheese. It’s not that easy for vegans to get enough calcium because plants are not great sources of that mineral. Vegans may need to take dietary supplements to get enough calcium.
Omega-3 fatty acids are heart-healthy fats that may be lacking in diets that do not include fish and fish oils. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include soybean and canola oil, flaxseeds, and walnuts.
What is a Vegetarian Diet for Children and Pregnant Women?
Children have different nutritional needs than adults. The lack of calcium, iron, vitamin B-12 and vitamin D in vegan and vegetarian diets are of particular concern for infants and children. The alternative sources of nutrients listed above can make up for such deficiencies in vegan and vegetarian diets for infants and children.
In addition, vegan and vegetarian foods are typically high in fiber and low in calories, which lead to a feeling a fullness. While adults might like feeling full because it causes them to eat less, children may stop eating because they feel full before their calorie needs are met. Substituting peeled fruit, fruit juices, and refined grains can decrease the fiber content of a meatless meal. Other good calorie sources for vegetarian and vegan children include avocados, nuts, soymilk, and dried fruit.
Vegetarians who are pregnant can meet their nutritional needs with a vegetarian diet that includes dairy. Vegans, however, need to be careful to get enough protein, vitamin D, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 calcium, and zinc. Extra grains, beans, nuts, and seeds can supply some of these nutrients. Pregnant vegetarians may also need to take supplements.
Sample Vegan Diet for an Adult
Here is an example of a well-balanced vegan menu. It has enough protein, carbohydrates, dietary fat, and fiber. This daily food plan also has an adequate amount of the vitamins and minerals that vegetarian diets often lack, such as vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and zinc.
Breakfast consists of one cup of calcium-fortified orange juice, one cup of soymilk, one cup of fortified bran flakes, and a banana. A calcium-enriched granola bar is a good snack.
Lunch consists of a four ounce veggie burger with mustard on a whole wheat bun accompanied by a salad of one and one-half cup of lettuce, one ounce of soy cheese, a medium apple, one ounce of peanuts, one-quarter cup sunflower seeds, two tomato slices, three mushrooms, and two tablespoons of vinaigrette dressing. To drink: Iced tea.
Dinner is one-half cup of kidney beans, three-quarters cup of brown rice, two tablespoons of soft margarine, one-quarter cup of mixed vegetables and hot tea. Rice and beans complement each other well as sources of protein.
And then there’s dessert of a slice of angel food cake topped with one-half cup strawberries and one-half cup soymilk.
Choosing a Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarianism is not one size fits all. Before you decide on changing to a vegetarian diet you might want to ask your medical provider what vegetarian diet is right for you.