What you eat

Clare Liddicoat, 16, is a sixth-former at Burgess Hill School in Sussex. She likes swimming, tennis and aerobics, plays the flute and is a member of a local theatre group. Clare is a vegetarian.


11am Low-fat strawberry organic yoghurt

1pm One finger-length of French bread with hummus, olives, lettuce and French dressing

7.30pm Two thirds of a portion of egg rice, one portion of mushroom curry

9.30pm Two cups of warm milk. (All milk is semi-skimmed.)


8am Fruit salad

12.30pm Lettuce and mayo sandwich (white bread), orange, banana

5.30pm Apple, three oatmeal biscuits

6.45pm Two bowls of mushroom soup (homemade), two white rolls with margarine (dairy-free), low-fat strawberry yoghurt (organic)


10.15am Apple, one piece of white toast with Flora

1pm Baked beans, vegetable pieces (breadcrumbed)

3.15pm One piece of white toast with Flora

6pm Yellow saffron rice, lentil stew, rhubarb crumble (school meal)

10pm Two cups of warm milk

The verdict

"Just because you become a vegetarian doesn't mean you are automatically healthy," says nutritionist Dr Toni Steer of MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge. "You still need to make conscious dietary choices, choose lower fat options, select unrefined carbohydrates, avoid processed foods with too much salt, and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day." Clare tends to eat white bread: she could increase her unrefined carbohydrates by switching to wholemeal bread and including breakfast cereal in the mornings (breakfast cereals can also provide nutrients such as zinc, vitamin B12 and iron, which can be low in a vegetarian diet). She could also do with eating a few more green vegetables each day.

Most people's first question to vegetarians is: where do you get your protein from? This is not usually a problem, says Steer. "Most vegetarians in the UK should get enough dietary protein from foods other than meat." The government recommends that no more than 15% of total energy intake should be made up of protein (in adults, this adds up to about 1g of protein per kilo of body weight). Most foods contain some protein: 3tbsp of cooked lentils contains 9g protein, a small tin of baked beans contains 10g, a slice of bread contains 3g. This can add up to an adequate daily intake. "The bigger concern with a vegetarian diet," says Steer, "is not what you are cutting out, but what you are including."

"Many vegetarians think they can simply replace meat with cheese. While dairy products are good sources of protein and calcium, they are high in saturated fat, so you need to choose lower-fat dairy products and protein sources, such as pulses." Clare does well with her semi-skimmed milk, her low-fat yogurts, she also has lentils and beans. Calcium is important for young women, who need to build strong, dense bones so as to reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Another major issue with many vegetarians, especially teenage girls, is getting enough iron. Women aged between 15 and 50 need 14.8mg of iron a day. That's a couple of very large portions of shepherds pie or 1kg of spinach. "Iron is important for the functioning of haemoglobin - a component in blood that is responsible for carrying oxygen to every part of the body," Steer explains. "This is why anaemic people complain of tiredness - they are not getting enough oxygen around their body." Iron intake is important to women and girls because we lose iron when we menstruate. The best dietary source of iron is red meat (the iron is in a form that is easily absorbed), and although green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale or broccoli do contain iron, it is not so easily absorbed.

Still, "there are ways to enhance your iron intake if you are a vegetarian," advises Steer. "Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron from vegetables and pulses, so drinking a glass of orange juice with your meal would do the trick. Tannin (in tea), meanwhile, inhibits how much iron your body can absorb, so avoid tea at mealtimes. There is also some evidence that certain acids, found in fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and some fermented soy sauces, have an enhancing effect on iron absorption from vegetables."

Overall it is good to see how few crisps, chocolates and fizzy drinks Clare consumes, and that she is trying to eat fairly regular meals. Many teenage girls eat erratically to try to stay slim, but, says Steer, "regular meals and planned low-fat snacks can really help with weight control." Starvation during teenage years is really not a good idea: your body needs energy and nutrients for optimum growth. What is more, eating may help your academic performance: "Research shows that students who eat breakfast, especially cereals, have improved concentration and memory - a must for teenagers during exam years."

Diet tips for a vegetarian

· Don't just replace meat with cheese. Try lentils, beans or tofu for low-fat sources of protein.

· Drink a glass of orange or grapefruit juice with your iron-rich vegetables to enhance iron absorption, and avoid drinking tea at mealtimes.

· Remember that general healthy-eating guidelines still apply to vegetarians. Watch your fat intake.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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