Vegetarianism is the voluntary abstinence from eating meat. Vegetarians refrain from eating meat for various reasons, including religious, health, and ethical ones. Lacto-ovo vegetarians supplement their diet with dairy (lactose) products and eggs (ovo). Vegans (pronounced vee-guns) do not eat any animal-derived products at all.
Vegetarianism has been steadily gaining acceptance as an alternative to the meat-and-potatoes bias of the traditional American diet. Several factors contribute to the interest in vegetarianism in the United States. Outbreaks of food poisoning from meat products, as well as increased concern over the additives in meat such as hormones and antibiotics , have led some people and professionals to question meat's safety. There is also an increased awareness of the questionable treatment of farm animals in factory farming.
But the growing health consciousness of Americans is probably the major reason for the surge in interest in vegetarianism. Nutrition experts have built up convincing evidence that there are major problems with the conventional American diet, which is centered on meat products that are high in cholesterol and saturated fat and low in fiber. Heart disease, cancer , and diabetes, which cause 68 percent of all deaths in America, are all believed to be influenced by this diet.
A vegetarian diet has many well-documented health benefits. It has been shown that vegetarians have a longer life expectancy than those who eat a meat-centered diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that data has shown vegetarians to have a strong or significant probability against contracting obesity , heart disease, lung cancer, colon cancer, alcoholism , hypertension , diabetes, gallstones, gout, kidney stones, and ulcers. However, the FDA also points out that vegetarians tend to have healthy lifestyle habits, so other factors may contribute to their increased health besides diet alone.
Vegetarians have a huge number of statistics in their favor when it comes to presenting persuasive arguments in favor of their eating habits. Vegetarians claim that a vegetarian diet is a major step in improving the health of citizens and the environment. Americans eat over 200 pounds (91 kilograms) of meat per person per year. The incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases has increased along with the dramatic increase in meat consumption during the twentieth century.
Many statistics show significantly smaller risks for vegetarians contracting certain conditions. The risks of women getting breast cancer and men contracting prostrate cancer are nearly four times as high for frequent meat eaters as for those who eat meat sparingly or not at all. For heart attacks, American men have a 50 percent risk of having one, but the risk drops to 15 percent for lacto-ovo vegetarians, and to only 4 percent for vegans. For cancer, studies of populations around the world have implied that plant-based diets have lower associated risks for certain types of cancer.
Nutritionists have repeatedly shown in studies that a healthy diet consists of plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, and foods that are high in fiber and low in cholesterol and saturated fat. Vegetarianism, a diet that fulfills all these criteria, has become part of many healthy lifestyles.
Some nutritionists have designed transition diets to help people become vegetarian in stages. Many Americans eat meat products at nearly every meal, and the first stage of a transition diet is to substitute just a few meals a week with wholly vegetarian foods. Then, particular meat products can be slowly reduced and eliminated from the diet and replaced with vegetarian foods. Red meat can be reduced and then eliminated, followed by pork, poultry, and fish. For those wishing to become pure vegetarians or vegans, the final step is to choose other nutrient-rich foods in order to eliminate eggs and dairy products. Individuals should be willing to experiment with transition diets and should have patience when learning how combine vegetarianism with social activities such as dining out.
The transition to vegetarianism can be smoother for adolescents who make informed choices with dietary practices. Sound nutritional guidelines include decreasing the intake of fat, increasing fiber, and emphasizing fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, beans and lentils, and whole grains in the diet while avoiding processed foods and sugar.
Thanks to the growing interest in vegetarianism, many meat substitutes are now readily available. Tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans that are high in protein, calcium, and other nutrients. There are "veggieburgers" that can be grilled like hamburgers, and vegetarian substitutes for hot dogs, corn dogs, chicken, turkey, ham, bologna, pastrami, and sausage with surprisingly authentic textures and taste. Major vegetarian meat substitute brands include Morningstar Farms, Boca, Gardenburger, and Lightlife. There are many vegetarian cookbooks on the market as well as magazines such as Vegetarian Times , Veggie Life , and Vegetarian Journal .
Famous vegetarians, past and present, include Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Leo Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gandhi, physician Albert Schweitzer, writer George Bernard Shaw, champion tri-athlete Dave Scott, and musicians Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Alanis Morissette, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool
Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can do well on a vegetarian diet, especially one that includes eggs and dairy products. If they are not included, the young child may suffer from shortages of vitamins B12, B2, and D; protein; calcium; and zinc. The child may also need iron supplements because iron in plant food is not absorbed well.
Infants and toddlers require many calories in order to grow at the normal rate. At about seven to eight months of age, babies are ready to start eating protein-rich foods. Instead of pureed meats, vegetarian infants should be given protein alternatives such as pureed peas, beans, and lentils, cottage cheese, pureed tofu, and yogurt.
It is important that toddlers eat high-calorie vegetarian foods such as diced nuts, olives, dates, and avocados so they get enough calories. Most importantly, parents should make sure a vegetarian child eats a wide variety of foods, according to a 2002 advisory from the journal Clinical Reference Systems .
Parents must take care to insure the child gets enough food for growth, since a vegetarian diet relies heavily on bulk foods that are filling but usually short of calories. Parents who are vegetarians and want their baby to be one should discuss the topic with a pediatrician. Young children who are vegetarians should be monitored regularly to make sure their weight and height are appropriate for their age.
About 2 percent of Americans age six to 17 (about 1 million) are vegetarian, the same percentage as among American adults, and 0.5 percent are vegan, according to a 2002 survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG). Six percent of six to 17 year olds do not eat meat but do eat fish and/or poultry.
Teens who follow a vegetarian diet are more likely to meet recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, and number of servings of fruits and vegetables as compared to non-vegetarians. They also have higher intakes of iron, vitamin A, fiber, and diet soda, and lower intakes of vitamin B12, cholesterol, and fast food. Most teens, whether they were vegetarian or not, do not meet recommendations for calcium, according to the VRG survey.
The survey concluded that rather than viewing adolescent vegetarianism as a phase or fad, the diet could be viewed as a healthy alternative to the traditional American meat-based diet. The survey also stated that vegetarian diets in adolescence could lead to lifelong health-promoting dietary practices. The survey was reported in the July-August 2002 issue of the VRG publication Vegetarian Journal .
In general, a well-planned vegetarian diet is healthy and safe. However, vegetarians, and particularly vegans who eat no animal products, need to be aware of particular nutrients that may be lacking in non-animal diets. These are amino acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. Infants and growing children have higher requirements for these nutrients.
Vegetarians should be aware of getting complete protein in their diets. A complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein essential to the diet because the body cannot make them. Meat and dairy products generally contain complete proteins, but most vegetarian foods such as grains and beans contain incomplete proteins, lacking one or more of the essential amino acids. However, vegetarians can easily overcome this by combining particular foods in order to create complete proteins. For instance, beans are high in the amino acid lysine but low in tryptophan and methionine, but rice is low in lysine and high in tryptophan and methionine. Thus, combining rice and beans makes a complete protein.
Eating dairy products or nuts with grains also makes proteins complete. Oatmeal with milk on it is complete, as is peanut butter on whole wheat bread. Proteins do not necessarily need to be combined in the same meal, but generally within four hours.
Getting enough vitamin B12 may be an issue for some vegetarians, particularly vegans, because meat and dairy products are the main sources. Vitamin supplements that contain vitamin B12 are recommended. Spirulina, a nutritional supplement made from algae, is also a vegetarian source, as are fortified soy products and nutritional yeast.
Amino acid —An organic compound composed of both an amino group and an acidic carboxyl group. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins. There are 20 types of amino acids (eight are "essential amino acids" which the body cannot make and must therefore be obtained from food).
Cholesterol —A steroid fat found in animal foods that is also produced in the human body from saturated fat. Cholesterol is used to form cell membranes and process hormones and vitamin D. High cholesterol levels contribute to the development of atherosclerosis.
Essential fatty acid (EFA) —A fatty acid that the body requires but cannot make. It must be obtained from the diet. EFAs include omega-6 fatty acids found in primrose and safflower oils, and omega-3 fatty acids oils found in fatty fish and flaxseed, canola, soybean, and walnuts.
Gout —A metabolic disorder characterized by sudden recurring attacks of arthritis caused by deposits of crystals that build up in the joints due to abnormally high uric acid blood levels. In gout, uric acid may be overproduced, underexcreted, or both.
Hypertension —Abnormally high arterial blood pressure, which if left untreated can lead to heart disease and stroke.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian —People who do not eat meat, but do include dairy products and eggs in their diets.
Lysine —A crystalline basic amino acid essential to nutrition.
Methionine —An amino acid that, when not metabolized properly, allows homocysteine to build up in the blood. Folic acid aids methionine metabolism.
Spirulina —A genus of blue-green algae that is sometimes added to food to increase its nutrient value.
Tryptophan —An essential amino acid that has to consumed in the diet because it cannot be manufactured by the body. Tryptophan is converted by the body to niacin, one of the B vitamins, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter.
Vegan —A vegetarian who does not eat eggs or dairy products.
Vitamin D can be obtained by vitamins, fortified foods, and sunshine. Calcium can be obtained in enriched tofu, seeds, nuts, beans, dairy products, and dark green vegetables, including broccoli, kale, spinach, and collard greens. Iron is found in raisins, figs, beans, tofu, whole grains, potatoes, and dark green leafy vegetables. Iron is absorbed more efficiently by the body when iron-containing foods are eaten with foods that contain vitamin C, such as fruits, tomatoes, and green vegetables. Zinc is abundant in nuts, pumpkin seeds, beans, whole grains, and tofu.
For vegetarians who do not eat fish, getting enough omega-3 essential fatty acids may be an issue, and supplements such as flaxseed oil should be considered, as well as consumption of walnuts and canola oil. Another essential fatty acid, omega-6, found in fish, can be obtained from borage oil or evening primrose oil supplements.
Vegetarians do not necessarily have healthier diets. Some studies have shown that some vegetarians consume large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat. It is quite possible to be a vegetarian yet eat an unhealthy fast-food or junk food diet. Eggs and dairy products contain cholesterol and saturated fat, while nuts, oils, and avocados are vegetable sources of saturated fat. To reap the full benefits of a vegetarian diet, vegetarians should be conscious of cholesterol and saturated fat intake.
Parents should closely monitor their vegetarian child's height, weight, and general health. A child who is not getting enough vitamins, minerals , and other nutrients may have symptoms such as skin rashes , fatigue, a painful and swollen tongue, irritability, pale skin, mental slowness, or difficulty breathing. The diets of vegetarian adolescents should be monitored closely to make sure they are eating a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and non-meat protein sources.
When to call the doctor
Parents should consult their child's pediatrician or physician if they are unsure the child's vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate. A doctor should also be consulted if a child's weight or height is not appropriate for their age.
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Grossman, Jeff. "Vegan with a Vengeance: Strict Form of Vegetarianism Attracts Young Adherents." Psychology Today 37 (March-April 2004): 16.
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——. "Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Foods for Vegetarian Teens." Vegetarian Journal (September 2001): 20.
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American Vegan Society. 56 Dinshah Lane, PO Box 369, Malaga, NJ 08328. Web site: http://www.americanvegan.org.
The Vegetarian Resource Group. PO Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203. Web site: http://www.vrg.org.
Vegetarian Youth Network. PO Box 1141, New Paltz, NY 12561. Web site: http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/4482/.
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Douglas Dupler Rebecca J. Frey, PhD Ken R. Wells