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Ask Dr. Gourmet

How can I make sure my vegetarian daughter gets enough iron and protein?

My almost 16yr old daughter has announced that she is a vegetarian. She will eat fish and dairy products. We're concerned about her obtaining the required amount of daily protein and iron. She has always been reluctant to consume meat products, but in the last month she has completely abstained from meat products. She does take multi teen vitamins, calcium, and one iron tab daily, as recommended by our pediatrician. Thank you for your assistance. We enjoy your web site tremendously!

Dr. Gourmet Says...

a group of young adults enjoying a meal together at a restaurant

Because your daughter is eating fish and dairy she is not likely to miss the essential amino acids that she needs. This is, in fact, a very healthy way to eat. We know from research that vegetarians tend to be healthier than the general population. In addition there is clear evidence about the benefits of eating less red meats and more fish.

Nutritionally both seafood and dairy products have "complete proteins," meaning that they have all the essential amino acids needed for growth, development and normal functioning of the body. By choosing to consume fish and dairy it is unlikely that she should have issues with not getting enough of the right proteins.

Plant foods are good sources of protein, but most don't contain complete proteins. A wide variety of foods is the key here. Brown rice, beans, whole grains, vegetables and fruits all combined with the fish and dairy she eats should provide good nutrition. Interestingly, soy beans are complete proteins and making soy a part of the diet is a good choice also.

Taking a multivitamin is great advice and your daughter's doctor is correct. Whether she needs an iron supplement or not is less clear from reading the research. It sounds as if your daughter eats healthier than most teenagers and as such is not likely to need extra iron in pill form. Many foods are fortified with iron and many of the foods that she will eat as part of her healthier diet are high in iron. Here are two PDF documents that might help:

Iron in Foods: The Basics
Iron Content of Selected Foods (from the USDA)

Good for you for supporting your daughter in her desire to eat healthier and good for her for doing so.

Thanks for writing,

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet