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Patient education: Vegetarian diet (The Basics)

Patient education: Vegetarian diet (The Basics)

What is a vegetarian diet? — In general, eating a vegetarian or "plant-based" diet means avoiding meat. A vegetarian diet typically includes vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts.

People might choose different forms of a diet they consider "vegetarian." For example, a person might:

Eat poultry and fish but no red meat

Eat fish but no other meats

Eat eggs, milk, and dairy products, but no meat

Eat milk and dairy products but not eggs or meat

Avoid all food products that come from animals, including eggs and milk products (this is called a "vegan" diet)

People have different reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet. They might do it for health reasons, or because they do not believe in eating animal products. Eating a vegetarian diet can also be less expensive as well as better for the environment.

Is a vegetarian diet good for my health? — It can be. If you want to improve your health, you will need to eat plenty of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. It's also important to limit things like sugar-sweetened drinks, processed foods, and alcohol. This is true whether or not you eat meat.

There is evidence that eating a lot of red meat and processed meats (like hot dogs and cold cuts) can increase a person's risk of heart disease and cancer. So cutting back on these types of meats can improve your health. Some studies have also suggested that people who eat a vegetarian diet are less likely to have problems like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. But it's not clear if this is a direct result of the diet.

If you avoid meat but eat eggs and milk products, you can probably get enough protein from those foods. But to make sure, it's a good idea to include beans, nuts, soy products, and certain protein-rich grains in your diet, too (table 1). If you eat a vegan diet (with no meat, eggs, or milk), it is especially important to include these foods.

Do I need to take supplements? — It depends on what foods you do eat and which nutrients you get from them. Nutrients found in meat and other animal products include:

Calcium – If you do not get enough calcium, your bones can become weak and break more easily. There are many foods that are rich in calcium, including milk and other dairy products. If you do not drink milk or eat dairy products, you can eat many other foods that are naturally high in calcium (figure 1). Examples include almonds, figs, tofu, beans, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Whether you get it from dairy products or other foods, you would need to eat several servings every day to get enough calcium. If you do not get enough calcium through your diet, you might need to take a daily supplement.

Vitamin D – Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. It is also very important for bone health. Vitamin D is found in eggs and certain types of fish (figure 1). Dairy products and cereals often have vitamin D added. Your body can also get vitamin D from the sun. If you do not get enough vitamin D through your diet or from the sun, you might need to take a supplement.

Vitamin B12 – This is a vitamin your body needs to make new blood cells, such as red blood cells. It is also important to help your nervous system work normally. A vegan diet (with no meat, fish, dairy foods, or eggs) is generally low in vitamin B12. If you eat this type of diet, you can get vitamin B12 through foods that have vitamin B12 added. But you might need to take a daily supplement, too.

If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or nurse about whether you should take any supplements. They can help you figure out what nutrients you are getting from the foods you eat. They can also tell you how and when to take supplements if you need them.

Can my child eat a vegetarian diet? — Yes, it is possible for children to eat a vegetarian diet and be healthy. But you will need to be careful to make sure your child gets all the nutrients they need. Children need more of certain nutrients because their bodies are growing.

Important nutrients for children and teens include:

Iron – Children need iron, especially when they are going through a "growth spurt" and in girls who have started their period. Iron is found in meat. Other foods, such as whole grains, beans, and green leafy vegetables, have smaller amounts of iron. Eating these foods along with foods that have vitamin C, such as fruits and tomatoes, can help the body absorb iron.

Calcium and vitamin D – Calcium and vitamin D are especially important for keeping bones strong while children are growing. Children who drink milk every day and eat dairy products probably get enough calcium through their diet. If your child does not drink milk, they will need to get calcium in other ways, such as through soy milk with added calcium or from a supplement. Other foods and drinks (such as cereal, breakfast bars, and orange juice) are also available with added calcium. These foods often have added vitamin D as well, which helps the body absorb calcium (figure 1). Children can also get vitamin D from eggs and certain types of fish, and from the sun.

Vitamin B12 – If your child or teen does not eat any animal products, he or she will need to get vitamin B12 in other ways. This can come from eating foods with added vitamin B12, such as some types of soy milk or cereal, or through a daily supplement.

Zinc – Children need zinc for their bodies to grow properly. It also helps the body protect against infections. Zinc is found in meat and milk products. Children who do not eat meat or drink milk can get zinc through grains, beans, nuts, and soy products.

Your child's doctor or nurse can help you make sure your child's diet includes enough nutrients. They can also recommend vitamin supplements if needed.

In some cases, teens might choose a vegetarian diet in order to lose weight. While this can be healthy in certain situations, it can also be unhealthy if the teen is cutting out too many nutrients or not eating enough. If you are worried that your child's diet might not be healthy, or that they might have an eating disorder, talk to their doctor or nurse.

What if I want to get pregnant? — If you are a vegetarian, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or nurse before you start trying to get pregnant. They might suggest working with a nutritionist (food expert). That's because vegetarian diets can sometimes be missing nutrients that are important for a growing baby.

Can I feed my baby a vegetarian diet? — Breast milk is the healthiest diet for almost all babies. It gives babies all the nutrients they need until about 6 months of age, when they usually start eating other foods. If you are thinking about feeding your baby a vegetarian diet when they start eating solid foods, talk to a doctor or nurse first. A vegetarian diet can be healthy for babies, but they might need certain vitamin supplements.

If your baby drinks formula instead of breast milk, you should use only store-bought infant formula. Most formulas are vegetarian and made with cow's milk. Some, like soy formulas, are vegan. But they all have the important vitamins and minerals that your baby needs. You should not give your baby homemade formula even if the ingredients seem healthy. That's because homemade formulas usually do not have enough of certain important nutrients, and this can be dangerous for babies.

More on this topic

Patient education: Diet and health (The Basics)
Patient education: Controlling your blood pressure through lifestyle (The Basics)
Patient education: Can foods or supplements lower cholesterol? (The Basics)
Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (The Basics)
Patient education: Nutrition before and during pregnancy (The Basics)
Patient education: Vitamin supplements (The Basics)
Patient education: Vitamin B12 deficiency and folate (folic acid) deficiency (The Basics)

Patient education: Diet and health (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: High blood pressure, diet, and weight (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Mar 03, 2022.
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