By Farah Chung, former Family Care Office Library Coordinator
Please note: This article does not provide medical advice and is for information purposes only. Please consult with a registered dietician knowledgeable in vegetarian nutrition to ensure a healthy transition to a vegetarian diet. Resources and contacts are provided at the end of the article.
I grew up in a vegetarian-friendly household. My mother, a long-term pescatarian, seldom prepared meat for my twin sister and me (especially after my sister became a vegetarian at nine years old). Despite my mother and sister’s influence, I did not become a vegetarian until I was twenty-four and discovered the challenges involved in transitioning to a vegetarian diet.
Why do people become vegetarians?
There are a number of reasons why someone might choose to eat a vegetarian diet or raise their children as vegetarians. Some reasons include health concerns, the environment, and animal welfare. Not all vegetarians share the same motivation and there are different categories of vegetarians.
Types of vegetarians include:
- Pesco-vegetarians – eat dairy, eggs, and fish, but do not eat meat or fowl.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – do not eat meat, fish, or fowl or products containing these foods, but do eat dairy and eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarians – similar to lacto-ovo-vegetarians except they do not eat eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarians – eat eggs but not dairy.
- Vegans – do not eat or use any products produced by or from animals, including meat, fish, fowl, dairy, or eggs.
Is a vegetarian diet healthy?
In their joint paper on vegetarian diets (2003), the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada take the position that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
According to Joel Fuhrman, MD, both omnivore and vegetarian diets can be healthful or harmful, depending on individual food choices. As a vegetarian, one should bear in mind that it is not healthy to replace meat and other animal products with white pasta and other processed foods. A diet rich in vegetables, legumes, and fruits is the key to healthy eating.
How to eat vegetarian
The foundation of a healthy vegetarian diet consists of a variety of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has a vegetarian version of the standard food guide with four food groups and recommended servings. They also have activities for children to help them learn about “the power plate.”
Start by thinking of vegetarian foods you already enjoy: sushi, Thai, Ethiopian, Chinese stir-fries, Mediterranean, Mexican, Indian, vegetable soups and stews, and pasta primavera. Then consider recipes you enjoy that can easily be made vegetarian: chilli (use only beans or add textured vegetable protein for a meaty texture), burgers, pizzas, tacos, and burritos, for example. More vegetarian cookbooks, blogs, and online resources are becoming available all the time. Check the bottom of this article for suggestions!
The information below is adapted from PCRM’s Vegetarian Starter Kit and Vegetarian Children, Vegetarian Resource Group, Dietitians Canada Vegetarian Guidelines, EatRightOntario Vegetarian Children, and the Toronto Vegetarian Association.
The nutritional value of a meal comes from more than just carbohydrate and fat content. Also extremely important are vitamins and minerals, which support the immune system, are necessary for growth and development, and help cells regenerate and function properly. Below are some of the most important vitamins and minerals, and the vegetarian foods that contain them.
Protein: Vegetarians can easily meet their protein needs by eating a varied diet consisting of whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, or chickpeas), tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, potatoes, corn, and, depending on diet type, dairy products and eggs, all of which are rich in protein. Especially important are complete proteins, which contain all necessary amino acids. In a vegetarian diet, complete proteins can be found most easily in cheese, eggs, yogurt, and milk.
Iron: Spinach, chard, broccoli, bok choy, mushrooms, dried beans, dried fruits, baked potatoes, tofu, tempeh, and cashews are excellent sources of iron. To improve iron absorption, include vitamin C-rich foods with your meal such as citrus fruits and juices, kiwi, mango, melons, and sweet peppers.
Zinc: This mineral is needed for growth and can be found in soy and soy products (tofu, fortified soy drinks), legumes (beans, peas, or lentils), nut and seed butters (almond, cashew, peanut butters, and tahini), seeds (pumpkin, flax), whole grains, and fortified cereals.
Calcium: Dairy products such as milk and yogurt can provide sufficient quantities of this mineral for lacto- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Ovo-vegetarians and vegans can obtain calcium from fortified plant milks and orange juice as well as leafy green vegetables (broccoli, collard greens, and kale) and nuts such as almonds.
Vitamin B12: Sufficient amounts of B12 can be found in dairy products and eggs. There are also B12-foritifed soy products and nutritional yeast (e.g., Red Star brand). Since vitamin B12 is not available in plant foods, vegans need to ensure they are consuming fortified foods and beverages on a regular basis or else take a supplement
Omega-3 fatty acids: If your children do not eat fish, they can obtain their essential fatty acids from ground flax and chia seeds.
Going vegetarian: some psychological considerations
Although there are more vegans and vegetarians every day, vegetarianism is not the norm. Here are some tips to help you keep your sanity in a meat-eating world.
- Do not let children feel isolated just because their diet may be different from others. Explain your reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet to your child and remember to model behaviour (sympathetic, not self-righteous) and food choices (healthy, mostly whole foods) that will have a positive impact on your child’s own behaviour and food choices. If your child is going to a party with non-vegetarian foods, you will have to decide whether you will “forbid” certain foods. (You can also call ahead of time to let the other parent(s) know about your diet and supply your own alternatives – e.g., ask for veggie burgers.)
- You may receive criticism from well-meaning but misinformed friends and family – even strangers! Rest assured, the medical literature clearly states that “well-planned vegetarian diets can be healthy for people of all ages” (EatRightOntario). Depending on your relatives, it might be a good idea to memorize such statements.
- Be honest, consistent, reliable, and patient when answering your children’s questions about your reasons for eating vegetarian.
- Living as a vegetarian in a non-vegetarian world can be challenging initially, but it is always challenging to think and live by your own standards. After some initial resistance, your friends and family will likely come to accept and even respect your commitment to eating well. Who knows? You may even convert one or two!
Make it fun! Vegetarian events around Toronto
- Toronto Vegetarian Association Resource Centre Hours, every Wednesday
- Join vegetarian and vegan groups around Toronto by location (e.g., Vegetarians of High Park) or by interest (e.g., Toronto Veg/Vegan Families)
- Annual Vegetarian Food Festival in September
Online Sources for vegetarian/vegan information
- “What You Need to Know About Vegetarian or Vegan Diets” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- Vegetarian Diets for Children Right From The Start
- Vegetarian and Vegan Diets with Vegetarian Starter Kit, Recipes of the Week, “Power Plate” nutrition (with kids section)
- What You Need To Know To Raise A Healthy Vegetarian Child by EatRightOntario
- Feeding Your Vegetarian Child from Region of Waterloo Public Health
Vegetarian / Vegan Nutrition-Related & Recipe Books
- Balcavage, D. (2009). The urban vegan: 250 simple, sumptuous recipes from street cart favorites to haute cuisine. Dallas: Three Forks Press.
- Esselstyn, R. (2013). My beef with meat: The healthiest argument for eating a plant-strong diet plus 140 new Engine 2 recipes. New York: Grand Central Life & Style.
- Moskowitz, I.S. (2007). Veganomicon: The ultimate vegan cookbook. New York: Marlowe & Co.
- Stephaniak, J., and Melina, V. (2003). Raising Vegetarian Children. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Available from the Family Care Office Library or the Toronto Public Library.
Sources for Vegetarian / Vegan Recipes
- Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s cookbooks with links to Toronto Public Library holdings: The Joy of Vegan Baking, Color Me Vegan, The Vegan Table,
- Vegweb – the world’s largest collection of vegetarian and vegan recipes
- Veghotpot blog for healthy, simple vegetarian meals
For more information about vegetarian and vegan parenting, please join us at our upcoming workshop, Raising Healthy Vegetarian Children, on January 22.