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It's easy to get answers about health and nutrition! Just send your question by email to askdrgourmet@drgourmet.com and Dr. Harlan will respond to selected questions of general interest. Answers will be posted in the Ask Dr. Gourmet newsletter (sign up now!) and archived in the Ask Dr. Gourmet section of the website.

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Vegetarianism: Pros and Cons

I'm in middle school and thinking about becoming a vegetarian - what are the pros and cons?

Dr. Gourmet Says...

Vegetarian lasagna

There are not many cons to being vegetarian.

There is a lot of research that suggests eating much less or no meat is very healthy. Some vegetarians don't eat any meat at all but will eat milk or cheese, and others will eat eggs as well. The most important aspect of being vegetarian concerns food sources of protein.

Proteins are made up of amino acids, but there are amino acids that our bodies can't make and we must get these in our diet. Meats and fish are sources of proteins as are dairy products and eggs. The proteins found in meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs have a complete set of amino acids. No vegetable has all the amino acids that the body doesn't make, however, so different vegetables must be combined to get a complete set. An example would be combining beans and rice. Either of these by themselves is incomplete in some amino acids, but combined they have a full set.

A good source of basic information is found in the book Diet for a Small Planet. There are many good vegetarian cookbooks including The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest, by Mollie Katzen who is the owner/chef of Moosewood Restaurant.

One problem with many vegetarian recipes is that they are not very moderate in the number of calories or the amount of fat. Strict vegans, for example, often add extra fat to recipes to boost flavor, texture, and to increase the "full" feeling. You can consume too many calories while following a vegetarian or vegan diet, however. Going vegetarian or vegan will not necessarily protect you from gaining weight and the consequences of excess weight (although it can help).

A lot of vegetarian snacks can be high in calories and fats too, so be careful.

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP
Dr. Gourmet