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Vegetarian eating

vegetarianism; vegetarian; lacto; ovo; pesco; vegan; youth; young; people; eating; dairy; food; diet;;


People become vegetarians for a whole range of reasons. Whatever the reason, it is important to have a well planned and balanced diet in order to be healthy and fit with energy to enjoy life and fun times.

Types of vegetarians

Vegetarians avoid all meat and fish products.

Vegans eat fruit, grains, nuts, legumes and vegetables but avoid all food that comes from animals including meat, eggs, and dairy foods (such as milk and cheese).

A lacto-vegetarian eats fruit, vegetables, etc and dairy foods.

An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs as well as fruit, vegetables, legumes etc.

A lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats dairy foods, eggs and fruit, vegetables legumes etc.

Pesco-vegetarians eat fish, dairy foods, eggs and fruit, vegetables, legumes etc.

Semi-vegetarians eat dairy foods, eggs, fish and chicken, fruit, vegetables, etc but no red meat - which is not being a vegetarian.

Why people become vegetarian

People who choose to become vegetarians do so for their own reasons. Reasons include:

  • preferring the tastes of vegetarian food
  • disliking the taste of meat
  • feeling "heavier" after eating meat
  • having concerns for animal welfare
  • religious beliefs
  • growing up in a vegetarian household
  • being influenced by vegetarian friends
  • being influenced by cost - meat can be expensive
  • caring about the environment (eg farming often means clearing virgin land; forests and jungles are destroyed)
  • wanting health benefits.

Good stuff about vegetarianism

There may be health benefits to well-planned and properly balanced vegetarian eating. Some of the benefits include:

  • less risk of heart disease
  • less risk of high blood pressure
  • less risk of strokes
  • less risk of some forms of cancer
  • less risk of diabetes
  • less risk of arthritis
  • less risk of bowel disorders eg constipation.

This may be because vegetarians eat less saturated fat (the kind of fat in meat) and because they eat a higher amount of plant foods high in fibre.

Some vegetarians, however, eat about the same amount of fat that some meat eaters do if they eat a lot of cheese and eggs. Nutritionists recommend eating more fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes, and less fats and meats. (see our topic "Healthy eating")

Not-so-good stuff about vegetarianism

OK, if your vegetarian diet is not well planned and well balanced, your health can be affected. Some of the ill-effects can be:

  • not enough iron (means little or no energy to get out and have fun)
  • not enough vitamin B12 (this is essential for healthy blood and nerves)
  • not enough calcium (calcium is essential for strong bones)

A well planned diet is important for your health now and throughout your life. A vegan diet (no animal protein at all eg fish, chicken, eggs, dairy foods) is more likely to cause health problems than other types of vegetarian diets. 

Apart from having to be really careful about your diet, many young people say they get hassled by family members or friends trying to get them to eat meat. Some family members may just be finding a way to tease you, but others will be genuinely concerned about your health. If you are clear about your reasons for not eating meat, and that you have a healthy diet, that annoying little brother waving a hamburger or a peperoni pizza under your nose is less likely to worry you.

So that people aren't concerned about your health, let them know that you understand the nutritional requirements of eating a vego diet. You may want to talk to a nutritionist or dietitian. We all have special dietary needs, eg young women who are getting their periods need more iron and women who are pregnant also have special needs.

Staying healthy

To make up for some of the things that could be lacking in a vegetarian diet follow these guidelines.

  • Make sure you eat protein - legumes such as lentils, chick peas, red kidney beans, and nuts, eggs, dairy - every day.
  • Eat foods that are rich in iron - lentils, baked beans, some breakfast cereals eg muesli, branflakes, sesame paste, broccoli, spinach, wholemeal bread, iron-fortified cereal.
  • Iron from fruit and vegetables is digested more easily when combined with foods rich in Vitamin C (fruit juices, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, mangoes, bananas, pineapple, capsicum, and broccoli). Bread and breakfast cereals often have added iron. If you make a sandwich of baby spinach and tomatoes or oranges you'll get the iron (in the bread and spinach) and Vitamin C (in the tomato) which helps digest the iron.
  • Eat foods rich in calcium such as milk or calcium enriched soy milk, yoghurts or cheese.
  • You may need some vitamin supplements, most commonly vitamin B12 if you don't have any animal products at all.

If you are only eating plant based foods you need to combine certain protein foods together to get enough protein, eg combine:

  • grains with legumes
  • nuts with legumes
  • seeds with legumes.

Some examples are:

  • baked beans on multi grain bread
  • peanut butter on multi grain toast
  • breakfast cereal with milk
  • hummus dip with bread.

Daily food guide

This is an approximate guide, remembering that different people have different needs.

Calcium: 3 serves daily
Examples - milk, yogurt, cheese, calcium fortified soy milk. Other good sources are: sardines or tinned salmon, nuts, legumes.

Protein: 2-3 serves daily
Examples - legumes (soya beans, lentils or other beans), soy milk, egg or egg whites, nuts or seeds, tofu, peanut butter.

Vegetables: 4-6 serves daily
Examples - cooked or raw vegetables,  

Fruit: 2 -4 serves daily
Examples- raw fruit, juice, dried fruit, canned fruit.

Bread, Rice, Pasta and Cereal: 5 - 11 serves daily
Examples- bread, cereal, pasta, rice.

There is a lot more detail about types of foods needed to make a healthy balanced diet in the Parenting and Child Health topic 'Vegetarian eating for young people'.

Points to remember

  • Your body needs foods which contain calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
  • Vary foods for a good vitamin intake.


South Australia

  • Your local community health centre or hospital may have a nutritionist or dietician. Check your local phone book
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor or other health professional.
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