- Vegetarianism has become popular in the United States in the
second half of this century.
- Vegetarians can be divided into different categories depending
on which animal foods are restricted in the diet.
- People adopt vegetarian diets for many reasons, including
health, ecology, economics, ethics and religion.
Vegetarianism is a widespread practice. In fact, a large part of
the world's population subsists on vegetarian diets. In many areas,
people are vegetarians because of inadequate income, lack of animal
products, and religious and cultural beliefs. Vegetarianism has long
been practiced in American society by a small proportion of the
population. Only within the second half of this century has there
been an increase in the popularity of vegetarianism in the United
States (approximately 2.5 percent of the population).
the American Dietetic Association has stated that vegetarian
diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate during all stages of
the life cycle, when appropriately planned. It is important that
vegetarians understand the principles necessary to practice safe and
Types of Vegetarian Diets
A vegetarian is a person who does not eat some or any foods of
animal origin. Vegetarians have different dietary practices, but
most can be categorized into one of the following groups:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat plant foods, milk,
milk products and eggs, but avoid flesh foods (meat, poultry and
- Lacto-vegetarians eat plant foods, milk and
milk products, but avoid eggs and flesh foods.
- Ovo-vegetarians eat plant foods and eggs, but
avoid milk, milk products and flesh foods.
- Pesco/pollo-vegetarians eat meats like seafood and
chicken, but do not eat other meats, such as beef, lamb, and pork.
- Total vegetarians, also called
vegans, eat plant foods only.
Why People Become Vegetarians
People adopt vegetarian diets for one or more of the following
Many people believe they will be healthier if they are
vegetarians. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat,
cholesterol and sodium, and higher in fiber, magnesium, folate,
potassium, and antioxidants than the typical American diet. there is
considerable evidence to suggest positive relationships between a
vegetarian diet and reduced risk for several chronic, degenerative
diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease,
high blood pressure, diabetes and some types of cancer. though there
are positive health benefits of vegetarianism, it cannot prevent or
cure disease. Vegetarians, like others, should seek necessary
Some people feel that one way to combat environmental degradation
and world hunger is to eat lower on the food chain. these
vegetarians feel the practice of growing food to feed animals is
wasteful -- that more people could be fed if Crops were used to feed
people rather than animals.
Most plant foods are less expensive than animal foods. the cost
of meat may limit the amount people eat.
Ethical reasons for vegetarianism include philosophies such as
nonviolence and reverence for life. Some people are opposed to
killing animals for food and abstain from eating meat, poultry and
Some religious groups have traditionally been vegetarian. Several
Indian religious groups include vegetarianism among their tenets of
faith. In the United States, Seventh Day Adventists are the largest
traditional group following vegetarianism and are
lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Some vegetarians are members of new religious
groups with diet-related taboos.
Planning a Nutritious Vegetarian Diet
People on vegetarian diets generally receive adequate amounts of
most nutrients. However, the following nutrients may be lacking.
Vegetarians should make sure they get adequate amounts of these
Energy is needed to sustain body processes and for physical
activity. Energy in food is measured in calories. Calories are
supplied by fat, carbohydrate and protein. Vegetarians tend to
consume fewer calories and are thinner than meat-eaters. this is
because plant foods are bulky and low in calories.
Most vegetarians eat enough food to meet their energy needs.
Vegetarian children and adolescents will receive enough calories if
their diets are well-planned. the less restricted the vegetarian
diet, the easier it is to meet energy and nutrient needs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
An increasing body of research
shows the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. these fats may
reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, improve cognitive
function and vision, and act as an anti-inflammatory in the body.
the primary sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet are fish,
organ meats, and DHA-enriched foods, such as eggs. Based on these
food sources, vegetarians may not get enough omega-3 fatty acids in
their diet. However, vegetarians can choose from the increasing
variety of DHA-enriched foods sold in the marketplace in order to
boost their omega-3 fatty acid intake. Also, capsule supplements
made from DHA-rich microalgae are available, but it is always
important to consult a healthcare provider before taking a
Protein is needed for growth and maintenance of body tissues. It
also is necessary for enzymes, hormones, antibodies and milk
production in women who are breastfeeding. Plant sources of protein
can provide adequate amounts of essential and nonessential amino
acids, if they are reasonably varied and caloric intake is
sufficient to meet energy needs. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables,
seeds and nuts all contain essential and nonessential amino acids.
Textured vegetable proteins and meat analogues, such as tofu and
tempeh (usually made from soybeans and fortified with amino acids)
are good protein sources.
Riboflavin helps the body break down carbohydrates, proteins and
fats so they can be used for energy. It also is necessary for
healthy skin, eyes and clear vision. the best sources are liver,
milk products and red meats. When these foods are restricted or
avoided, riboflavin must come from other sources, such as green
leafy vegetables and fortified or enriched grains.
Vitamin B12 is needed for normal red blood cell
formation and normal nerve function. the body needs only small
amounts and can store it in large amounts. therefore, a deficiency
takes a long time to develop, maybe several years. Once a deficiency
does develop, however, it results in irreversible nerve damage.
therefore, vegetarians need to pay special attention to this
Cyanocobalamin, the human form of vitamin B12, is
available from nonanimal products such as fortified commercial
breakfast cereals, fortified soy beverages, some brands of
nutritional yeast, and other products.
A vegetarian who eats milk products daily will get enough vitamin
B12. Vegans, however, have little or no vitamin
B12 in their diets. they must obtain the vitamin through
regular use of a vitamin B12 source such as fortified soy
milk or yeast, or a vitamin B12 supplement.
Vitamin D is required to absorb calcium from the digestive tract
and to incorporate calcium into bones and teeth. Few foods contain
large amounts of vitamin D. the best sources -- fortified milk, egg
yolks and liver -- are all of animal origin. therefore, vegetarians,
especially vegans, may not get enough.
|Figure 1: A Vegetarian Pyramid (developed by
New York Medical College, adapted from the Food Guide Pyramid)
is geared toward vegetarians and helps them plan a healthy
diet. (See Table 1 for serving sizes).
Another source of vitamin D is sunlight. the body makes vitamin D
from sunlight on the skin. People regularly exposed to sunlight can
get enough vitamin D without having any come from food. However, sun
exposure can be limited by several factors, including dark skin,
pollution and northern latitudes. If sun exposure is limited and
there are no animal products in the diet, a vitamin D supplement is
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, for normal blood
clotting, and for normal muscle and nerve function. Most calcium in
the American diet comes from milk and milk products. When these
foods are avoided, calcium must come from other sources. Dark green
leafy vegetables are the plant foods that provide the most
Certain plant components may inhibit the absorption of dietary
calcium. In the context of the overall diet, however, this does not
appear to be significant. Calcium from low-oxalate vegetable greens,
such as kale, is absorbed as well or better than calcium from cow's
Calcium deficiency in vegetarians is rare, and there is little
evidence to show that calcium intakes below the Dietary Reference
Intake cause major health problems in vegetarians. U.S.
recommendations for calcium are relatively high compared to those
for populations that eat a more plant-based diet. High levels of
animal protein increase urinary loss of calcium. U.S.
recommendations are designed to compensate for this. Studies show
that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from food than do
Iron combines with protein to form hemoglobin, the substance in
the blood that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide. An adequate intake
of iron is necessary to prevent anemia. Many Americans, both
meat-eaters and vegetarians, have a difficult time consuming enough
Iron is found in animal and plant foods, but the iron in animal
foods is more easily absorbed by the body. Also, the iron in plant
foods may be less available to the body because of their high fiber
content. Fiber is not absorbed into the body. It may tie up
minerals, such as iron, so they, too, are not absorbed. For these
reasons, vegetarians may be at a higher risk for developing iron
deficiency. Because women need more iron than men, they especially
need to pay attention to iron.
Among plant foods, dark green leafy vegetables have the highest
iron content. Dried fruits, such as raisins, apricots, peaches and
prunes, also are high in iron. Eat plant sources of iron at the same
meal as foods high in vitamin C (Brussels sprouts, strawberries,
citrus fruits, broccoli, collard greens, mustard greens, cantaloupe,
or vitamin C-rich fruit juices). Vitamin C increases the
availability of iron in the intestinal tract. When vitamin C and
iron are eaten together, more iron is absorbed into the body.
|Table 1: Daily food guide for
vegetarians. Below are suggested daily servings, based on a
2000 calorie diet, from each of the food groups in MyPyramid.|
||Suggested Daily Amounts
||1 slice bread; 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta; 1/2
bagel or English muffin; 6" tortilla|
||2 1/2 cups
||1/2 cup cooked, chopped or raw vegetables; 1 cup raw leafy
vegetables; 3/4 cup vegetable juice|
||1 medium piece of fruit; 1/2 cup canned, chopped, or
cooked fruit; 3/4 cup fruit juice|
|Milk and milk substitutes
||1 cup of milk or yogurt; 1 cup calcium and B12
fortified soy milk; 1 1/2 oz. hard cheese; 1 1/2 oz. calcium
and B12 fortified soy cheese|
|Meat and fish substitutes
||5 1/2 ounces
||1 cup cooked dry beans, peas, or lentils; 2 eggs; 8 oz.
bean curd or tofu; 1/2 cup shelled nuts; 3-4 Tbsp peanut
||1 serving daily
||3-5 tsp vegetable oil + 1 Tbsp blackstrap molasses + 1
Tbsp brewer's yeast|
|* this is for vegans who do not consume
fortified products. this group at the tip of the pyramid is
for vegans who do not consume fortified products. the
vegetable oil is for calories and essential fatty acid; the
molasses for iron and calcium; and the yeast for B-vitamins,
especially riboflavin. Fortified brewers yeast has
Vegetarians, as well as meat-eaters, find that legumes -- dry
beans, dry peas and lentils -- are an excellent food to extend or
replace meat. Legumes are low in cost, high in nutritive value, and
contribute iron and B vitamins to the diet. Although their protein
quality is low, they can be combined with small amounts of animal
food, such as milk, eggs or cheese, or with other plant foods, such
as grains, to yield high-quality proteins.
Dry beans are rich in protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus and
potassium. Many varieties of dry beans include black beans, garbanzo
beans (also called chick peas), kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans
and pinto beans.
Dry peas are good sources of protein, iron, potassium and
thiamin. they are green or yellow and can be purchased split or
Lentils are disc-shaped legumes similar in size to peas. they are
rich in protein, iron, potassium, calcium and phosphorus.
A vegetarian diet can meet daily nutrient needs. Vegetarians
should be aware of which nutrients may be lacking in their diets.
Vegans need a reliable source of vitamins B12 and D.
Riboflavin, calcium and iron may also deserve special attention,
although intakes usually are adequate if the diet contains
reasonable variety and adequate energy.
Because it may be difficult for infants, young children,
adolescents and pregnant and lactating women to get enough calories
and nutrients, vegan diets for these groups should be well-planned
and supervised by a qualified health professional.
Vegetarians should follow the prudent diet principles recommended
in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Well-planned
vegetarian diets can effectively meet these guidelines and be a
health-supporting dietary alternative.
- "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian
Diets." Journal of the American Dietetic Association,
November 1993, Vol. 93, No. 11, pp. 1317-1319.
- "Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians
of Canada: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic
- Vegetarian Pyramid. New York Medical College. 1994.