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Children's Health Network
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Being a Vegetarian

For much of the world, vegetarian diets are largely a matter of economics. Meat can cost a lot more than beans or rice, so meat is a special-occasion dish (if it's eaten at all).

In countries like the United States where meat is not as expensive, people often eat vegetarian diets for reasons other than cost. These can include:

  • parental preferences
  • religious or other beliefs
  • health issues
  • concern over animal rights or the environment

No matter the reason, if you eat a vegetarian diet, be sure to get the nutrition you need by including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (like beans, soy, and lentils), nuts, and seeds. Be careful when it comes to processed foods, which tend to be low in nutrients and high in fat, calories, and salt.

What Are the Types of Vegetarian and Semi-Vegetarian Diets?

People can eat different kinds of vegetarian diets:

  • vegetarian eats no meat at all, including poultry or fish. 
  • A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy products and eggs.
  • A lacto vegetarian eats dairy products but not eggs.
  • An ovo vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.
  • A vegan (pronounced: VEE-gun) does not eat eggs, dairy, or other animal products like honey and gelatin.

Many people try to eat the amount of meat in their diets. Some people who don’t eat red meat but may eat poultry or fish consider themselves semi-vegetarians, sometimes called flexitarians. People who follow a vegetarian diet but eat fish and seafood are called pescatarians.

Are Vegetarian Diets OK for Teens?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics endorses vegetarian eating, saying that "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? Being a vegetarian is a good choice if you can plan a well-balanced diet. Simply dropping some 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 must include these key nutrients into a vegetarian diet:

  • iron
  • calcium
  • protein
  • 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. The stricter the diet, the harder it will be to get enough of these from the foods you eat. 

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to see if you need to take daily vitamin and mineral supplements.

Iron

Vegetarians can get enough iron in the plant-based foods they eat. 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 foods high in vitamin C (citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli) will help your body absorb iron better.

Girls need more iron because some is lost during menstruation. Some girls who are vegetarians may not get enough iron from their diet and may need a daily supplement. Check with your doctor about your own iron needs.

Calcium

Milk and yogurt are good sources of calcium if you're eating dairy products. Tofu, calcium-fortified milk alternatives, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs are also excellent ways to get calcium. Remember: You're building strong bones during the teen years to last for the rest of your life.

Because women are more likely to have osteoporosis (weak bones), it's particularly important for girls to make sure they get enough calcium. If you don’t get enough in your diet, your doctor may recommend taking a calcium supplement.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps get calcium into the bones. Your body makes 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 vitamin D-fortified milk alternatives and fortified breakfast cereals.

Your doctor may recommend a daily vitamin D supplement. 

Protein

Vegetarians can get all the protein they need by eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day. Choose nuts and nut butters, tofu and other soy products, beans, lentils, seeds, grains, cereals, and vegetables to get all the protein your body needs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians also get protein from eggs and dairy products.

If you don’t think you’re getting enough protein in your diet, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Vitamin B12

B12 is an essential vitamin found in animal products, including eggs and dairy. Fortified milk alternatives, fortified breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast also have this important vitamin. It's hard for vegans to get enough vitamin B12 so you may need a B12 supplement.

Fat, Calories, and Fiber

Besides vitamins and minerals, vegetarians need to keep an eye on 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. High-fiber diets tend to be more filling, so some vegetarians may feel full before they've eaten enough calories to keep a healthy weight.

Some vegetarians may not get enough healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are good for heart health and are found in fish and eggs. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include some vegetable oils (such as soybean, canola, and flaxseed), chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and walnuts.

Getting Some Guidance

Let your doctor know if you eat a vegetarian diet or are planning to. Your doctor can talk to you about healthy vegetarian diets or recommend a registered dietitian to help you plan a vegetarian diet that’s right for you.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021