What do you mean you’re a vegetarian?!

When I tell people that I am a vegetarian, I get a lot of questions: You don’t eat meat? Are you getting enough protein? Have you seen that funny video about questions vegetarians are tired of hearing? (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you click here to view). So many questions. So little time.

First of all, you should know what a vegetarian is…and that there are several types of vegetarians out there. Generically, a traditional vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy. There are also some varieties out there who will eat dairy products (lacto) or eggs (ovo). These people are often called lacto-ovo vegetarians. I used to be a pesco-pollo vegetarian (yeah, I know it’s not really a vegetarian in the most generalized form, but it helped me explain to people what I would and would not eat-for over 15 years!) and this just means, they will eat fish and poultry but no pork or beef. The list can go on and on but if you know someone who claims to be a vegetarian just ask them what they will not eat if you want more details.

People choose to be vegetarian for a number of reasons. I originally tried it as part of a bet. That bet that was placed almost 20 years ago (I won, by the way) turned in to something much more. Since that time, I went from eating poultry and fish to eating only fish mainly because our food supply is so messed up. Without having to pay a price, we are not guaranteed where our food comes from, how it is treated or how far it has traveled. I know too many people with cancer, autism, and other life-changing diagnoses that I’m not taking a chance and decided to cut out all the unnecessary foods and limit those that may or may not contain loads of hormones, pesticides and who knows what else.

So here is what I want to share with you today. You can be a vegetarian-as an adult OR as a child- and still get all the nutrients you need to grow and mature properly. Below will mainly cover what it means to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian (one that will eat dairy products and eggs). So remember, if you are willing to eat fish, you can add that to the protein section.

We will start by going into detail about the top 3.5 concerns: Proteins, Calcium/Vitamin D, and Iron.


What is Protein and why do I need it?
Protein builds, maintains, and replaces the tissues in your body and are made up of
Amino Acids.

How much do I need?
Protein needs must be met for growth and daily activities. If you shoot for 10-20 grams of protein at each meal or snack, you will meet your daily needs.

How do I get it?
Essential Amino Acids are not made by the body and must be obtained through the food we eat. Plant proteins contain some essential Amino Acids so we don’t have to eat meat to get them! Plant and non-meat foods that contain important Amino Acids are eggs, low-fat milk, tofu, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. You will know you are getting enough by reading the nutrition label or looking up the nutrition information online or in a number of books that are available with this information. Once you get a feel for how much nutrition is in what foods, you won’t need to keep consulting these resources, but it is a great place to start. This goes for protein but also for any nutrient you are interested in finding more information about!

Calcium/Vitamin D:

What is Calcium and why do I need it?
Calcium builds strong teeth and proper bone development. Vitamin D is needed to get that calcium into your bones and teeth.

How much do I need?
The amount of calcium and vitamin D needed daily changes throughout ones life and depends on your gender. If you have concerns if you or your child is or is not getting enough calcium, ask your doctor, dietitian or ask me! If you want to think about it in terms of servings, you are probably getting enough if for children, they are getting 2 servings/cups of dairy each day or 3 servings as a (non-pregnant) adult.

How do I get it?
Calcium and Vitamin D can be found in a number of foods, whether it is there naturally or the food has been fortified with it. Dairy or dairy-containing products are one of the most well-known was to get it: milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.  However, if you don’t eat a lot of dairy or have trouble with lactose intolerance, you can get these necessary nutrients from non-dairy foods too! Some of my favorites include green leafy vegetables (bok choy, turnip greens, kale, okra), soymilk, tofu, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds), dried beans (cooked and ready) and peas!

What is Iron and why do I need it?
Iron is an important part of your red blood cells. These are the cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. We all should all know that we need oxygen to live, so needless to say, iron is pretty important. Wouldn’t you agree?

How much do I need?
Depending on your age and gender, the amount that each person needs does vary. So, once again, if you have concerns about if you or your child is getting enough Iron, ask your doctor, dietitian or ask me. Getting too much iron can cause problems, so I wouldn’t just look on the internet for this one. Ask a professional.

How do I get it?
Iron is richest in meat products, but can still be obtained from plant sources. Nuts, lentils, beans, spinach, enriched breads and cereals, tempeh and soybeans (edamame) is your best bet. Keep in mind that to help with absorption of iron, eating plant sources along with a Vitamin C source will help the absorption into the body to be more efficient. So for example, squeeze some lemon on your broccoli or slice some strawberries on your spinach salad.

Besides all the above, in general to be a vegetarian you still need plenty of foods from all the food groups to cover all needed nutrients. Vegetables, fruits, grains, some fats and oils, along with protein and calcium make up a healthy eating lifestyle.

Believe it or not, you can be healthy and get all the nutrients you need from a vegetarian diet. You can even be an avid exerciser and be vegetarian! The cool thing about a lot of the food items above is that many of them all share these necessary nutrients. Beans, for instance, contain protein, calcium and iron!! Talk about convenient AND delicious!

I just want to re-state for the record, that CHILDREN CAN BE VEGETARIAN and be healthy. Trust me. The tuna sandwich or bag of steamed edamame beats those tortilla chips with nacho cheese 100% any day. There are studies that show (and to me this is common sense but…) what a child eats at home as a child will influence their health outcomes as adults. Think about it.


About laurenfaye

I am a dietitian in the New Orleans area currently working at 2 clinics counseling women, infants and children. I received my Human Nutrition Bachelors Degree with a minor in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and completed my dietetic internship practice through Tulane University. I love food: the way it tastes, the way it looks, and the science behind it. I originally started this blog to give myself practice on writing about food. However, since becoming a dietitian full time I have decided to expand it a little further to cover other things I am passionate about as well. I am a retired Irish Dance Instructor since co-founding the Triallta Irish Dance Company. I am also versed in ballet, tap, belly dance, swing dance and acrobatics. I love fitness, learning and love meeting new people.
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