A person may choose to follow a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, including:
Moral or political beliefs
The desire to eat more healthy foods
Vegetarian diets most often lead to healthier outcomes:
Lower levels of obesity
Reduced risk for heart disease
Lower blood pressure
Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians usually eat:
Fewer calories from fat (especially saturated fat)
Fewer overall calories
More fiber, potassium, and vitamin C
A well-planned, carefully monitored vegetarian diet can deliver good nutrition. Dietary recommendations vary with the type of vegetarian diet.
For children and adolescents these diets need to be carefully planned, because it may be hard to get all the nutrients needed for growth and development. Vegetarian diets are high in fiber. High-fiber diets may lack some of the calories children need for growth, and cause some growth problems.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as the elderly, should carefully monitor their vegetarian diet to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies.
Vitamins that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet include:
When proteins are digested, amino acids are left. The human body needs many amino acids to break down food.
Amino acids are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, and eggs, as well as in plant sources such as beans, legumes, soy, and nut butters.
You do not have to eat animal products to get all the protein you need in your diet. See: Protein in diet
Vegetarian diets that include some animal products (lacto-vegetarian and lacto-ovovegetarian) are nutritionally sound. Vegan diets need to be carefully planned to include the right amounts of important nutrients.
The following are recommendations for feeding children on vegetarian diets:
Make breast milk or formula the basis of the diet until age 1. (See: Diet for age)
Use milk or a fortified soy formula.
Do not limit fat in a child younger than age 2.
Children who do not drink milk or a fortified substitute may lack the following nutrients: calcium, protein, vitamin D, riboflavin, and may need a vitamin and mineral supplement.
Children who do not eat animal products must take vitamin B12 supplements.
It is hard to get enough iron intake if the child does not eat meat.
NOTE: A registered dietician should review any specialized diet to make sure it meets you or your child's nutritional needs. This should be done before starting the diet.
National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). National Academy Press. Washington, D.C., 2005.
National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C., 2005.
Escott-Stump S. Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008.
United States Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 2010.
Sarubin Fragaakis A, Thomson C. The Health Professionals Guide to Popular Dietary Supplements. 3rd ed. Chicago, Il. American Dietetic Association, 2007.
Alison Evert, MS, RD, CDE, Nutritionist, University of Washington Medical Center Diabetes Care Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.