When embarking on a vegetarian diet, make sure you balance your nutrients

A primer for the primavera set
Plan any gathering or meeting involving food and you'll quickly realize how widespread vegetarianism has become.

Religious and ethical reasons have been joined by reduced-fat, heart-healthy considerations as well a simple desire to add more vegetables to the diets. Many parents express a concern at the levels of hormones, dyes, antibiotics and preservatives in our meat supply.

Whatever the reason, government reports indicate that there are approximately 15 million vegetarians in this country. Study after study shows that they have significantly lower rates of cancer and hypertension, a major decrease in their risk for heart disease (up to 500 percent for men), live longer and have less problems with obesity.

"Vegan" is the term for those who shun any products from animals, including substances such as honey. Vegetarianism covers a broader spectrum, and includes ovo-lacto vegetarians who consume milk and egg products. Some vegetarians, such as those on macrobiotic diets, will consume fish or seafood.

Whether you are on an all-meat and starch diet or are consuming vegan fare, you run the risk of nutritional deficiency. The more restrictive the diet, the greater the risk. While this article is to discuss potential dangers of vegetarianism so that those who follow this approach can be on the healthiest path, it is important to point out that an all-too-common high-fat, mostly meat diet is equally if not more deadly.

Vegans must be the most diligent. Serious physical dangers occur when basic building blocks are eliminated, especially for children. In a recent issue of The Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study showed that teens who ate a strict macrobiotic diet during infancy and early childhood had signs of impaired thinking abilities.

All the children had vitamin B-12 deficiencies with performance problems on tests measuring short-term memory, reasoning abilities, capacity to solve complex problems, abstract thinking and the ability to learn.

Reducing or eliminating animal products lowers fat levels. Nutritionists warn that extremely low-fat diets are a danger to children. However, 30 percent fat appears to be adequate for growth. A study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the neurological development of 500 children raised on a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol during the first five years of their lives. Those who consumed around 30 percent of their calories from fat were comparable in development to meat-eating children.

Although the filling bulk in a plant-based diet can be a boon to adults controlling their weight, it can be a problem for children. Little bodies can hold only so much, and too few calories means nutrients get used for energy rather than building bones and muscle. Nuts, nut butters and oils are ways to add calorie-dense fare to a child's diet.

Here are some guidelines for a healthy vegetarian diet from the American Dieticians Association. These potential deficiencies can be met with planning.


If you are including dairy and egg products, this isn't a concern. Children from 3 to 10 years old need 16 to 28 grams of protein daily, older children should intake 45 to 60 grams. Extremely athletic youth need more.

Of concern are the nine amino acids or protein building blocks that we must consume. The following are the amino acids with plant sources: histidine (grains such as rice, wheat, rye); isoleucine (chick peas, soy products, seeds, lentils); leucine (brown rice, beans, nuts); lysine (lima beans, potatoes, soy); methionine (beans, garlic, lentils, seeds, soy); phenylalanine (peanuts); threonine (a small amount in grains); tryptophan (brown rice, soy, peanuts); and valine (peanuts, mushrooms, soy, grains).

While some people still believe certain foods must be combined to provide adequate protein, the ADA points out that scientific research indicates the body is more than capable of mining what it needs from a diet with adequate variety. Still, is important to select from all four incomplete plant-based protein groups legumes, grains, nuts and seeds to get what you need. Popular combinations are peanut butter on whole wheat bread or red beans and rice or humus (chickpeas and sesame seeds).


This is a challenge without dairy products. One problem is that fiber blocks calcium absorption. Dark green, leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified soy, tofu, orange juice and breakfast cereals are vital, especially for children. Vegetarian children should be consuming four to five servings of these sources each day.


This is especially important to girls as they approach puberty. Unfortunately, it is best absorbed from meat, but beans, dried fruit such as raisins and figs and whole grains provide iron. Your daughter will need six or more servings of whole grains accompanied by three servings of beans every day. Iron-fortified cereals help meet this need. Calcium blocks iron absorption so don't serve them together.


Found mostly in meats, this is necessary for sexual maturation and the immune system. Wheat germ, whole grains and zinc-fortified cereals will help meet zinc requirements. Be warned that fiber as well as phytates found in whole-wheat muffins, pancakes and tortillas interferes with zinc absorption. Children under 10 need 10 milligrams daily, older children approximately 14.

Vitamin B12

Needed for growth and healthy nerves, it is found only in animal products. Although some herbivores get this vitamin from sea vegetables, we human omnivores cannot absorb that source of B12. Supplementation and regular servings of B12-fortified cereals are recommended.

In attempting to meet daily nutritional needs, some vegetarians fall into monotonous routines. A bagel with peanut butter for breakfast, a veggie sandwich for lunch, pasta with tofu for dinner. Day after day, the same basic fare. That type of eating is not only impoverishes the spirit, it doesn't fulfill the body's need for a variety of nutrient sources.

Plant-based fare can be as exciting as it is healthy. Green appetit!

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