What's a Vegetarian?

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What's a Vegetarian?

"I can't eat that, I'm a vegetarian!"

You may have heard kids in the cafeteria or at a birthday party say this as they passed on a burger and grabbed a slice of cheese pizza instead. Did you wonder what a vegetarian is exactly?

A vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat, and mostly eats foods that come from plants, like grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Some stricter vegetarians avoid more than just meat. They also avoid animal products, which are nonmeat foods that come from animals. Some examples would be milk (from cows) and eggs (from chickens).

Many Types of Vegetarians

There are many kinds of vegetarians. Here are some of them:

  • semi-vegetarian: eats meat, but only fish and chicken
  • pesci-vegetarian: eats only fish
  • lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats no meat, but will eat dairy products (milk, butter, cheese) and eggs
  • ovo-vegetarian: eats eggs, but no meat or dairy products
  • vegan (say: VEE-gun): eats no meat or animal products

Why Are People Vegetarians?

People have different reasons for becoming vegetarians. Some follow vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets for health reasons. For instance, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains tends to be low in fat and cholesterol, which is good for your heart. It's also likely to be high in fiber and can be lower in calories.

Concern for animals and environmental reasons are also cited by vegetarians when they explain why they don't eat meat. In addition, some cultures and religions have vegetarian diets.

Can Kids Be Vegetarians?

Kids can be vegetarians, but they can't do it alone. They need grown-ups to help them make sure they get the vitamins and minerals they need. Eating a nutritious diet helps kids develop and grow as they should. Meat is a good source of protein, iron, and other important nutrients. So someone who's a vegetarian needs to take care to replace those nutrients with non-meat foods. It wouldn't be healthy for a kid to just stop eating meat without telling anyone or having an adult help with some dietary changes.

Nutritional Needs

Kids who are vegetarians can get the nutrients they need, especially if they follow a less restrictive diet — one that allows animal products, like eggs and milk. The more foods that are off-limits, the harder it will be for a kid (or anyone) to get the proper nutrition. For instance, a vegetarian who still drink milks and eats eggs can get calcium, vitamin B12, and protein from these sources. A vegan, on the other hand, will have to look elsewhere.

Let's take a closer look at the vitamins and minerals often found in meat and animal products, and some veggie foods that can provide them.

Iron

Your body needs oxygen to stay alive. The body can't use oxygen, though, without iron. Iron is an important part of hemoglobin (say: HEE-muh-glow-bin), the part of your red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

Iron is a little harder to get from plant sources because it is not absorbed into the body as well as the iron that comes from animal sources. Vegetarians can get the iron they need from cooked dried beans, like kidney beans or chickpeas, baked potatoes with skins, dried fruits (like raisins), whole and enriched grains (like wheat or oats), and leafy green vegetables (like broccoli and kale). Vitamin C (found in many fruits and veggies) enhances the absorption of iron, while calcium (found in milk and other dairy products) can block iron absorption.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium helps your body build strong teeth and bones. Dairy products (like milk, cheese, and yogurt) contain calcium. Vegetarians who don't eat dairy products can get calcium from leafy green vegetables, but this may not be enough for a kid who is growing. If dairy is not a part of your diet, look for calcium-fortified products, like orange juice, soy milk, and some breads and cereals, or talk to your doctor about taking a calcium supplement.

Vitamin D helps calcium get into your bones. Some foods, including calcium-fortified foods, contain vitamin D. But your body can actually make vitamin D when it's exposed to sunlight. So whether you eat meat or not, be sure and go outside to play!

Zinc

You probably know your body is made up of cells that are so small you can't see them. Zinc helps those cells grow. It also helps the body heal cuts and scrapes and is important to your body's immune system. You can find zinc in legumes (a fancy word for beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts) and nuts. However, it's easier for your body to absorb zinc from meat, eggs, and seafood.

Protein

Protein is part of every cell in the body. It is needed to maintain bones, muscles, and organs. Like iron, it's an important part of hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body. And protein is essential for growth.

Vegetarians can meet protein requirements by eating a variety of plant sources each day, such as nuts, peanut butter, tofu, beans, seeds, soy milk, grains, cereals, and vegetables. Eggs and milk are excellent sources of protein for lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. The body needs it to help build DNA and red blood cells. It also helps your nerve cells work. Vegetarians can get B12 from milk and eggs, but vegans will need a supplement.

Do Vegetarians Need Multivitamin Supplements?

With a well-planned vegetarian diet, the food a person eats can supply enough vitamins and minerals, but a multivitamin is often recommended. Why? Because a vitamin helps ensure that you'll get all the nutrients a growing kid needs. Ask your doctor or a registered dietician for advice about vitamins.

Thinking of Going Veggie?

Lots of kids think about becoming vegetarian and some decide to take the plunge. The best first step is to talk with a parent. Different parents will have different reactions. A parent who's already a vegetarian will probably say it's great (as long as you get the proper nutrition). A parent who's not a vegetarian may be concerned about your nutrition and the extra work involved in buying and preparing meat-free meals for you.

Expect some questions and be ready with answers. What will you eat for dinner if everyone else is having steak? Your parents also might want you to explain why you want to change your eating habits. Your mom or dad might want to get some expert advice by scheduling an appointment to talk about the idea with your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Do your best to answer their questions and think about the changes you'd need to make as a vegetarian. If your parents don't want you to switch to a vegetarian diet, consider a compromise. Ask if they will eat vegetarian one or two days a week. Offer to help plan the meals for those veggie days. Why not dig into some vegetarian cookbooks and start coming up with ideas? Show your family how delicious a vegetarian meal can be. Here's one recipe for you to chew on:

Mmmmm ... Vegetable Lasagna!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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