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What is a vegetarian?
What do vegetarians eat?
Nutrition considerations for vegetarians
Health benefits associated with vegetarianism
How to be a healthy vegetarian
How to become vegetarian

Introduction 1
A vegetarian diet is one that does not include any meat in his or her diet, though some people who classify themselves as vegetarians do eat fish. According to recent data, over 30 million people in the United States have tried a vegetarian diet . (Other people, trying to make their diets more healthful, have integrated the vegetarian style of eating into non-vegetarian diets. For example, a person may choose to eat meat once a day or as little as twice a week.)

When vegetarians go to college, or when college students become vegetarians, they may be worried about how difficult it will be to find foods they can eat. But most schools are becoming very accommodating to vegetarian students. A lot of colleges are recognizing the diverse needs of students, and campus dining halls are beginning to offer vegetarian dishes more frequently. Although being a healthy vegetarian can be a challenge, it is definitely possible if you pay attention to what your body needs.

What is a vegetarian? 2

There are many types of vegetarian diets, but the two most common are lacto-ovo (includes eggs and milk products, but not meat) and vegan (no forms of animal products). College women who are lacto-ovo vegetarians can usually get enough nutrients in their diets.

If it is important to you to be a vegetarian, it is easier to achieve good nutrition with the lacto-ovo form. A dietician near you can help you plan a vegetarian or vegan diet that provides you with the nutrients you need.

A person may choose to become vegetarian for several reasons, including:

  • Being concerned about environmental conservation
  • Objecting to the politics of meat production
  • Adhering to religious teachings about diet (such as in the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Seventh Day Adventist)
  • Having moral objections to the killing of or cruelty to animals
  • Finding a vegetarian diet to be cheaper and healthier
  • Not liking the taste of meat
  • Following a vegetarian fad, in some communities
  • Wanting to lose weight
    • NOTE: Weight loss isn't a good reason for starting a vegetarian diet; research has found no difference in the average BMI of vegetarians versus non-vegetarians.
Some people find they have been vegetarian for so long that they don't even have clearly defined reasons anymore!

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What do vegetarians eat? 3
Some people assume that vegetarians only eat pasta and salad and do not get enough nutrients, calories, or fat in their diets. However, a vegetarian diet can be very diverse, fulfilling, and delicious. The National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics has adapted the traditional Food Guide Pyramid for a vegetarian diet (ADA). The base of the vegetarian pyramid includes 6-11 daily servings of Bread, Cereal, Rice, Pasta, and Grains. There should be 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruits per day. Beans, nuts, legumes, meat substitutes, and dairy or egg products should be eaten in 2-3 daily servings; fats, oils, and sweets should be used sparingly. This isn't too different from the traditional Food Pyramid. To see the traditional Pyramid, check out our factsheet on the Food Pyramid.

For creative ideas for some great vegetarian meals, you might want to check out vegetarian cookbooks (see Additional Resources).

For recipes on the internet, visit:

Vegetarian Recipes
Vegetarian Resource Group Recipes
Veggies Unite!
Recipes for Health

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Nutrition considerations for vegetarians 4
Although a vegetarian diet may require more attention, it can be very healthy if you eat a variety of foods and pay special attention to specific nutritional requirements. But for vegans and certain age groups, such as teenagers, pregnant or lactating women, and athletes, it may be necessary to take supplements of calcium, vitamin B12, or vitamin D. For more info on vegetarian diets adapted for certain groups, visit the Vegetarian Resource Group Nutrition website or the Statement of the American Dietetic Association on Vegetarian Diets. For Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) of all nutrients, see this page.

Protein is needed for muscles to grow and be strong. One of the main myths associated with a vegetarian diet is that not enough protein is consumed. The truth of the matter is that most American non-vegetarians consume much more protein than necessary! Vegetarian diets provide less protein, but this amount is usually enough if a variety of plant foods are eaten and you get enough calories and fat. Lower protein diets are associated with a lower risk for osteoporosis, since high levels of protein may increase the amount of calcium that is excreted from the body through urine.

Proteins are made up of 20 basic building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can produce 11 amino acids on their own; the other 9 amino acids are considered "essential amino acids" and can only be obtained through the food we eat. All foods are plentiful sources of essential amino acids, although plant foods contain a limited amount of any one amino acid. In order to get all of the essential amino acids, a variety of different plant foods need to be eaten. These different sources of protein (such as beans, rice, and nuts) do not need to be consumed at the same time, as long as you eat them within the same 24-hour period.

Significant sources of protein from non-meat sources include: whole-grain (not refined) flour and cereal; nuts and peanut butter; soy foods such as tofu, miso, tempeh, and soy milk; grains; and legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils.

Learn more about the amounts of protein found in plant foods.

Iron is important for healthy blood, and an iron deficiency can result in anemia. This is a particular concern for women, teens, and children. Although vegetarians and non-vegetarians may absorb similar amounts of iron, the type of iron found in plants is different from that found in meats. Iron from plant foods is not absorbed as well by the body, which may lead to lower iron stores. Additionally, fiber, phytates (found in cereals), oxalates (found in leafy green vegetables), tea, coffee, soda, and chocolate may inhibit iron absorption. However, citrus foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges and tomatoes, actually increase iron absorption when eaten together with the iron source. Good sources of iron include beans, seeds, soy foods, fortified breakfast cereals, enriched and whole grain breads, dairy products, legumes, cashews, tomato juice, rice, tofu, lentils, spinach, cooked dry beans (such as kidney and pinto beans), and garbanzo beans (chick peas). Vegetarians who eat fish and other aquatic animals can also get iron from sardines and shellfish like shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters.

Learn more about the specific amounts of iron found in plant foods.

Vitamin B12
Vegans may have trouble getting enough vitamin B12 and research suggests that some lacto-ovo vegetarians probably don't get enough either. Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria, fungi, and algae, but is not made by yeasts, plants, or animals. Some plant foods may contain vitamin B12 on their surface from the soil, but this is not a significant source if the food is washed properly. Vitamin B12 can also be found in sea vegetables, tempeh, and miso - however this has been found to be an inactive form of the vitamin. Good sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans include fortified foods, such as soy milk and cereals. It might be necessary to take supplements if you don't consume enough vitamin B12 through these foods. The daily requirement for vitamin B12 is quite small, but deficiency can be very dangerous. Low levels of B12 can cause anemia as well as numbness or tingling in the extremities or other neurologic symptoms. Talk to a healthcare professional before taking supplements.

Learn more about vitamin B12.

Calcium is needed to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis, especially for women. (Whether soy helps prevent osteoporosis or not is still under investigation.) Lacto-ovo vegetarians usually get more calcium than vegans, since they consume calcium rich foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. Vegetarians who eat fish can also get calcium from canned fish with soft bones, such as salmon and sardines (high in salt). Vegans should be careful to consume enough plant-based calcium sources, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens, turnip greens) in addition to calcium fortified foods, such as soy milk, cereals, fruit juice, and tofu (if made with calcium sulfate -- check the ingredient list). Many vegetarians and vegans (as well as non-vegetarians) may also need calcium supplements if they don't get enough calcium from food. Talk to a healthcare professional before taking calcium supplements.

Learn more about specific amounts of calcium found in plant foods.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D and calcium are crucial for preventing osteoporosis. (Whether soy helps prevent osteoporosis or not is still under investigation.) Vitamin D is often found in fortified dairy products, such as milk, and in fortified cereals. It can also be obtained through 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin each day. However, this may be a more risky way of getting vitamin D than through your diet:

  • Wearing sunscreen interferes with your body's production of vitamin D, but wearing no sunscreen increases your risk of developing skin cancers.
  • Additionally, getting enough vitamin D from 15-20 minutes of sunlight might be impossible for many people due to cold climates, smoggy skies, dark skin, concealment of skin for religious reasons, and sunscreen with an SPF of 8 or greater, all of which may affect the amount of vitamin D produced by sun exposure. All of the people mentioned here would have to expose themselves to the sun for longer than 15-20 minutes without sunscreen to get enough vitamin D.
  • Therefore, try to depend on foods, not on sunlight, to get the vitamin D you need.

Vegans should eat vitamin D fortified foods (such as soy milk and cereals) and take supplements. Talk to a healthcare professional before taking supplements.

Read more about Vitamin D at a governmental non-vegetarian site.

Zinc is important for growth and the immune system. Zinc is less likely to be found in plant foods, although there is some in leafy vegetables and root vegetables, but can be found in whole grains (especially the germ and bran of the grain), fortified cereals, dairy and soy products, legumes, nuts, and tofu.

Vegetarians may need as much as 50% more zinc than non-vegetarians because of the lower absorption of zinc from plant foods:

Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs)
of Zinc for Women (milligrams/day)

Talk to a healthcare professional about your individual requirements for zinc intake. Do not take zinc supplements without a healthcare professional's recommendation.

Read more about zinc at a governmental non-vegetarian site.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 (or n-3) fatty acids are important for heart health. Vegetarians who eat fish should be sure to eat fatty fish a few times a week, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna, and lake trout. (If you're pregnant or nursing, talk to a doctor about fish, because they might have excessive mercury if they're contaminated.) Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fresh seaweed and omega-3 eggs (for vegetarians who eat eggs), which are available at health food stores. Vegetarians who eat fish should also eat plant sources with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): tofu, soybeans, canola oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil. ALA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid, but less potent than the types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, seaweed, and omega-3 eggs.

Vegetarians who don't eat fish are at risk of an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Although the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for omega-3 fatty acids is small (about 1 gram/day for women 14-30), deficiency can contribute to cardivascular disease and other major health problems. Eating the plant foods with ALA is an alternative to ingesting the more potent forms of omega-3 fatty acids. Still, talk to a healthcare professional to be sure that your diet includes enough omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the other nutrients listed in above this section. Don't take omega-3 supplements unless instructed by your doctor, as excessive omega-3 fatty acids may cause internal bleeding.

Read more about vegetarian diets and omega-3 fatty acids.

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Health benefits associated with vegetarianism 5
People who adhere to a vegetarian diet may also pay more attention to adopting a healthier lifestyle that includes more fruits and vegetables, less fat, more exercise, less smoking, better drinking habits, and less consumption of caffeine and alcohol. Because of these general habits and the inconsistency between individual vegetarians, it is difficult to generalize the health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet. However, a healthy diet does play an important role in preventing:
  • Heart disease: Vegetarians in the U.S. have a lower risk of heart disease, the number one killer of American women. This may be due to the nature of fat consumption: vegetarians, especially vegans, are less likely to consume saturated fat and cholesterol, which are major risk factors for heart disease.

  • High blood pressure: Vegetarians who eat less fat and more fiber, and who exercise more and smoke less, have a lower risk of high blood pressure.

  • Type II diabetes: Vegetarians have a reduced rate of Type II diabetes. This may be due to decreased consumption of saturated fat and increased consumption of fiber and complex carbohydrates.

  • Cancer: The National Cancer Institute states in its booklet Diet, Nutrition & Cancer Prevention: The Good News that a third of cancer deaths may be related to diet. The booklet's "Good News" is: Vegetables from the cabbage may reduce cancer risk, diets low in fat and high in fiber-rich foods may reduce the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum, and diets rich in foods containing vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta-carotene may reduce the risk of certain cancers. Keep in mind, though, that being vegetarian does not necessarily mean you have a reduced risk for cancer.

  • Obesity : Vegetarians who minimize fat and calories, increase fiber, and exercise more, are at lower risk for obesity.

  • Kidney stones and osteoporosis: The lower intake of protein by vegetarians may lead to better retention of calcium in the body, which prevents osteoporosis and kidney stones. However, research has not found an association between vegetarianism and instances of kidney stones or osteoporosis. The best way to prevent these and other health problems is to exercise regularly and to eat the Recommended Daily Allowances of all nutrients, with extra zinc (see above).
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How to be a healthy vegetarian 6
It can be tempting for some lacto-ovo vegetarians to rely too heavily on eggs and diary products as a replacement for fat and protein that would otherwise be provided by meat. Falling into this habit can lead to a diet high in cholesterol and fat without the health benefits of vegetarianism. Especially if you are at college-where cafeterias aren't always accommodating and sometimes it's just easier to eat fast food all the time-eating healthy might not be on the top of your agenda. Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy diet if you're in school:
  • If you usually eat in the cafeteria, try to look for healthy vegetarian options. Instead of grabbing a fried veggie burger and fries, check out the salad bar.

  • Try to mix different kinds of food during the same meal, such as a baked potato with salad or rice and beans. Overall, choose a variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, including good sources of vitamin C to improve iron absorption.

  • Choose whole or enriched breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.

  • Speak to the manager of the cafeteria. Increasing numbers of college students are becoming vegetarian now, and the management at your school might want to learn how to better accommodate your dietary needs. They might also be interested in sponsoring vegetarian or healthy cooking classes for students.

  • Try not to rely too much on cheese, eggs, and milk as your main source of fat and protein. These products have a lot of saturated fat. Instead, try some soy alternatives-such as tofu or "fake" meat.

  • There's more to order out than pizza-try ethnic foods, like Indian and Thai food, that offer many vegetarian options rich in vegetables and grains.

  • Keep nutritious snack foods on hand, such as nuts and dried fruit. Minimize intake of less nutritious foods such as sweets and fatty foods.

  • Keep an eye out for low-fat vegetarian convenience food at the supermarket, such as veggie burgers, vegetarian chili, refried beans, or tofu dogs. If you eat dairy products, choose low-fat or nonfat varieties.

  • If you are cooking for yourself, try to look through vegetarian cookbooks, magazines, or websites.

  • Avoid unhealthy weight-control practices. Research has found that vegetarian teens are at a higher risk than non-vegetarians for bingeing, taking laxatives, and developing other eating disorders.

  • Read more at Tips for Making the Switch to a Vegetarian Diet.
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How to become vegetarian 7
Maybe you have convinced yourself that you want to become vegetarian-for whatever reason-but you're not sure how to start. It can be difficult to decide to change years of the same eating habits. First, there are many resources out there on the internet that may be valuable to the beginner vegetarian. Additionally, many of the organizations listed below have bulletin boards and personal stories of people who made or are making the transition.

Many people wonder what vegetarians eat all the time if they aren't consuming meat. If this is a concern for you, you might want to try out the suggestions in Making the Change to a Vegetarian Diet and The Three-Step Way to Go Vegetarian.

If you are at school and don't have the ability to cook for yourself, try the vegetarian options that are available. Check to see if your school has an animal rights, vegetarian, or environmental group. Students affiliated with these clubs might be a valuable resource and provide a welcome community for you to join. See if there are any vegetarian-sponsored events in your area. And if you are trying out new foods, or are unsure of what to eat, don't hesitate to contact your campus health center-many universities now have nutritionists that spend some time on campus consulting with students.

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Vegetarian Nutrition Resource List, Vegetarian Nutrition Topic Page, Vegetarian Resource Group, Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, How to Be a Healthy Vegetarian, Vegetarian Starter Kit, More People Trying Vegetarian Diets

Vegan Society, American Vegan Society, Vegan Outreach, Nutrition

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 50.








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