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No meat? No worries

A vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients your teenager needs to maintain good health

A vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients your teenager needs to maintain good health
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Alternatives for key nutrients

Vegetarians defined

Going vegetarian

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, March / April 2013

"Mom, Dad, I've decided to become a vegetarian."  

These words have been known to strike fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. The reason: Many parents worry their son or daughter won't be able to get enough of the nutrients needed to maintain good health from a diet that does not include meat.
But if you happen to be one of these parents, you needn't worry. A vegetarian diet can be just as healthy as one that includes meat. In fact, a growing number of studies suggest that vegetarians tend to live longer, disease-free lives than those who eat meat.

According to a report prepared by the Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetics Association, those who follow a vegetarian diet will consume lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol than those who don't. They'll also consume more folate, magnesium, fibre, potassium, and antioxidants - all good things.

Moreover, a growing number of studies suggest that those who go meat-free on a nutritious and balanced diet are less at risk for a number of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, and kidney stones.

The key, of course, is the "nutritious" and "balanced" part.

Following a healthy vegetarian diet is more complicated than picking the meat out of an omnivorous meal. A vegetarian's health depends on replacing meat with alternatives such as eggs, legumes, tofu, and nuts that can provide the nutrients often found in more traditional meat-based diets. But that does not have to be difficult.

People often believe that one of the bigger challenges in making the transition to a vegetarian diet is making up for the protein that one normally obtains from meat. After all, meat's most famous role is as humanity's main source of protein. But the truth is protein can be found nearly everywhere you turn. In addition to the meat alternatives listed above, sources include milk, grains, and fish. Getting enough protein is actually the last thing to worry about in a vegetarian diet. Getting the right type of protein is the key.

Proteins, like words, are comprised of letters of an alphabet. Protein's "alphabet" contains 21 letters called amino acids. Nine of these are called essential because the human body needs to get them from food, while your body can make the rest of them itself. Foods high in these essential amino acids - such as meat, fish, milk and eggs - rate well on protein quality scores.

So how does a vegetarian get these proteins without eating animal products?
As a general rule, aim for a variety of different foods that contain protein. For example, wheat and kidney beans or rice and sunflower seeds combine to form a complete protein. Don't get stuck on eating your favourite bean or grain every day: try different ones like mung beans or millet.
There are other important nutritional issues to be aware of. For example, vegans are not able to get enough B12 with food alone. This vitamin helps promote healthy blood cells and prevent anemia. That means they may have to take a vitamin B12 supplement.

By and large, though, anyone wanting to become a vegetarian should be able to meet their nutritional needs without difficulty.      

Jessica Penner is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2013

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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