The American Dietary Association concluded recently that a well planned vegetarian diet can be appropriate for all people at all stages of life including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence & active people. It is important to note ‘well planned’ in the above statement. It is not beneficial simply to adopt a meat free diet.
At the age of 12 my daughter announced that she was no longer going to eat meat. I made the mistake of saying ‘you’ll never keep that up’ and today 5 years on Lucy is a strict vegetarian. Lucy is also an active teenager. What were my concerns? Lucy’s diet of white, highly refined carbohydrates was a concern. Eating whole carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread and pasta, whole brown rice, whole grain breakfast cereals would ensure Lucy got a higher intake of the minerals zinc (important for protein metabolism) iron (required for blood cell production and energy) as well as essential fats (for health and immunity).
Protein was another concern for me. Meat is an excellent source of protein. The problem with plant proteins is that they tend to be limiting in one or more of the essential amino acids. It is important that Lucy combines different types of plant foods. This will ensure that proteins with low levels of amino acids are complemented by those with high levels of amino acids eg combining beans or peas (legumes) with grains or legumes with seeds or nuts.
Another benefit of seeds and nuts is that they are an excellent source of zinc. I am aware that strenuous exercise increases zinc loss in the body and also vegetarians tend to have a lower intake of zinc. Another area of concern for me was iron. Studies have shown that vegetarians get plenty of iron, however, it is the iron absorption that may be impaired. Lucy needed to eat plenty of fresh fruit & vegetables and juices rich in vitamin C which enhances iron absorption.
So, it is not all bad news. In fact, studies have shown that a vegetarian diet is associated with lower risk of heart disease, lower blood cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower risk of diabetes.