Lots of people limit their intake of meat — maybe you, your kids, or others in your family don't eat meat. Maybe you're a vegetarian and are wondering if it's a good choice for your kids, too. Or perhaps your teen just expressed an interest in going meat-free and you're looking for information.
The term "vegetarian" can mean different things to different people:
To most of us, "vegetarian" means someone who eats no meat at all, including poultry and fish, but who might eat dairy products and eggs (also called a lacto-ovo vegetarian).
A lacto-vegetarian eats no meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but does eat dairy products.
An ovo-vegetarian eats no meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but does eat eggs.
And many people don't eat red meat or pork but do eat poultry and/or seafood.
Less commonly practiced is the form of vegetarianism known as veganism. A vegan doesn't consume any animal-derived foods or animal byproducts, and eats only plant-based foods. Besides not eating meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or dairy, vegans don't use products made from animal sources, such as fur, leather, and wool.
While those are obvious animal products, many animal byproducts are things we might not even realize come from animals. These include:
gelatin (made using meat byproducts)
lanolin (made from wool)
rennet (an enzyme found in the stomach of calves, young goats, and lambs that's used in cheese-making)
honey and beeswax (made by bees)
silk (made by silkworms)
shellac (the resinous secretion of the tiny lac insect)
cochineal (a red dye derived from the cochineal insect)
Veganism (also known as strict vegetarianism or pure vegetarianism), as defined by the Vegan Society, is "a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose."
Vegans also avoid toothpaste with calcium extracted from animal bones, if they are aware of it. Similarly, soap made from animal fat rather than vegetable fats is avoided. Vegans generally oppose the violence and cruelty involved in the meat, dairy, cosmetics, clothing, and other industries.
What About Nutrition?
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), "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. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes."
Vegetarian diets offer a number of advantages, says the ADA, including lower levels of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and higher levels of fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants. As a result, the health benefits of a vegetarian diet may include the prevention of certain diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
But any restrictive diet can make it more difficult to get all the nutrients a person's body needs. A vegan diet eliminates food sources of vitamin B12, which is found almost exclusively in animal products, including milk, eggs, and cheese. A vegan diet also eliminates milk products, which are good sources of calcium.
To ensure that "well-planned" diet, vegans must find alternative sources for B12 and calcium, as well as vitamin D, protein, iron, zinc, and occasionally riboflavin.
Vitamin B12. Vegans can get vitamin B12, needed to produce red blood cells and maintain normal nerve function, from enriched breakfast cereals, fortified soy products, nutritional yeast, or supplements.
Calcium. Everyone needs calcium for strong teeth and bones. Calcium is plentiful in dark green vegetables (spinach, bok choy, broccoli, collards, kale, turnip greens), sesame seeds, almonds, red and white beans, soy foods, dried figs, blackstrap molasses, and calcium-fortified foods like soy, rice, and almond milks; fruit juices; and breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium and is synthesized by exposing skin to sunlight. But vitamin D deficiency can happen, especially in someone who doesn't spend a lot of time outside. Vitamin D is not found in most commonly eaten plant foods; the best dietary sources are fortified dairy products. Vegans can also get vitamin D from fortified foods, including vitamin D-fortified soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, orange juice, and some cereals. Vitamin D2 supplements come from plants, whereas most vitamin D3 comes from animals.
Protein. Not getting enough protein is a concern when switching to a vegetarian diet. Protein needs can be met while following a vegan diet by consuming adequate calories and eating a variety of plant foods, including good plant sources of protein such as soy, other legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Iron. Iron from plant sources is less easily absorbed than iron in meat. This lower
means that iron intake for vegetarians should be higher than the RDA for nonvegetarians. Vegetarian food sources of iron include soy foods like soybeans, tempeh, and tofu; legumes like lentils and chickpeas; and fortified cereals. Iron absorption is enhanced by vitamin C.
Zinc. Zinc plays a role in many key body functions, including immune system response, so it's important to get enough of it, which vegans can do by eating nuts, legumes, miso and other soy products, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tahini, wheat germ, and whole-grain breads and cereals.
Omega-3 fatty acids. The omega 3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA, and ALA) are important for cardiovascular health and brain function. DHA and EPA are found in fish, eggs, and algae. Vegans can get these essential fatty acids through a diet rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. ALA is found in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy. DHA from microalgae can be found in supplements and fortified foods.
If your child is interested in becoming a vegan, you might be wondering if a vegan diet can be practical and provide sufficient nutrients. It's important to consider a few things before making any major dietary changes.
Kids can follow a vegan diet and still get what they need to grow healthy and strong, but it will require careful label reading and extra effort to make sure nutrition guidelines are met.
Anyone following a vegan diet has to be a careful label-reader. No federal regulation dictates the use of the words "vegetarian" or "vegan" in the United States. To be sure a food truly is "suitable for vegans," check the label — what might be vegetarian isn't necessarily vegan.
Vegans are by no means stuck eating boring foods with little variety. But if someone in your family is considering going vegan or wondering whether it's realistic to stop eating animal-based foods, it might pay to start slowly.
A wide array of meat alternatives can be found in almost every grocery store. Tasty frozen veggie burgers, chicken and meat substitutes, sausage alternatives, fake bacon, and tofu dogs can help make the transition to a vegan diet convenient and easy.
And many foods you probably already have are suitable — most breakfast cereals are vegan as are many crackers, cookies, and baked goods.
For more information, consider talking to a registered dietician familiar with vegan diets and look for vegetarian cookbooks that can help you plan and prepare healthy meatless meals.