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The following special dietary needs are addressed on this page:


What is a vegetarian diet? People who eat vegetarian diets do not eat meat, poultry, seafood, or anything that is made with meat.

Why would a student eat a vegetarian diet? There are many reasons why students may prefer a plant-based diet. Students might choose not to eat meat for health, environmental, and/or ethical reasons. Some students may prefer vegetarian dishes or choose to eat vegetarian some of the time. Other students may also eat kosher or halal diets because of their religion. These diets require meat to be butchered and prepared in a specific way. People who follow these diets will often choose to eat vegetarian when eating away from home.​ Vegetarian choices in the cafeteria: Including vegetarian diets in meal planning does not have to be difficult, nor do vegetarian burgers need to be served at every meal. Meat analogs (e.g., Boca Burgers) are helpful in adding variety to the menu, but plenty of other vegetarian options are less expensive and even healthier. (Vegetarian menu suggestions are available.) Add to these lists as you discover other items that are popular with students. These menu suggestions will appeal to many students, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike.

Special considerations: Most vegetarians consume enough protein and other nutrients as long as they eat milk and eggs. (See the next section for information on vegan dietary needs.) Check labels on convenience foods to ensure meat products have not been added before labeling a food as vegetarian.

Bottom line: Offer vegetarian choices at every meal. As many vegetarian entrees are inexpensive, integrating these dishes into your menu will also help your bottom line.

Source: Vegetarian Resource Group. (2011). Vegetarianism in a Nutshell. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from


What is a vegan diet? People who eat a vegan diet do not eat any animal products, including eggs, milk, or meat, or any foods that contain these products.

Why would a student eat a vegan diet? Most vegans choose to avoid all animal products for environmental, health, and/or ethical reasons. Veganism is the fastest growing diet in America.

Vegan choices in the cafeteria: Vegan diets rely on fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grain products (not made with milk or eggs), nuts, seeds, and legumes. Most processed foods are not vegan. Many vegan products, including baked goods, are available for purchase. Easy additions to help vegan students meet their nutritional needs include oatmeal, dark-green vegetables (e.g., broccoli and spinach), fortified orange juice and soy milk, bean or lentil soup made with vegetable stock, beans on the salad bar, fruit, vegan whole wheat bread, meat analogs, and raisins.

Special considerations: Students who choose to eat a vegan diet must be conscious of eating enough protein, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. Special considerations for vegans include:
  • Vegans must eat a variety of vegetables and grains in order to consume enough protein. Vegan sources of protein include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, peas, peanut butter, soy milk, almonds, spinach, rice, potatoes, broccoli, kale, and other vegetables.
  • Vegan diets may be deficient in some vitamins and minerals.
    • Vitamin D is not found in vegan foods, but humans can synthesize vitamin D through sunlight. Vegan students should spend 10-15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen in the summertime. In many climates, the sun is not strong enough during winter to provide the necessary vitamin D. Vegan students should drink vitamin D-fortified orange juice or soy milk, or take a supplement in the winter.
    • Calcium is found in dark green vegetables, beans, tofu made with calcium sulfate, and calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice. If vegan students do not eat foods that are high in calcium, they should take a supplement.
    • Zinc is found in grains, legumes, and nuts.
    • Beans, dark green leafy vegetables, raisins, and some grains are good sources of iron.
    • With the exception of seaweed, vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in vegan foods. Many meat analogs are fortified with vitamin B12. If those are not served, students will need to take a supplement.
Bottom line: Some vegetarian foods are also vegan. Food service staff should periodically survey students to determine if there is a need to offer vegan foods. Ensure that vegan foods are available at every meal if vegan students are on center. ​

Vegan students should meet with health and wellness staff to ensure their nutritional needs are met and to discuss the benefits of taking a multivitamin.

Source: Vegetarian Resource Group. (2011). Veganism in a Nutshell. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from


What is a lactose-free diet? Lactose-free diets do not include milk or milk products.

Why would a student eat a lactose-free diet? People who are lactose intolerant cannot properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products. When these individuals consume milk products, they often have unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms. Less common, some people suffer from a milk allergy, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Lactose-free choices in the cafeteria: Soy-milk, Lactaid, rice milk, almond milk, and coconut milk are available from most food manufacturers and distributors. Some of these options are shelf stable and last for a long time. Other lactose-free products, including yogurt and cheese are also available. Many processed foods contain lactose including bread and other baked goods, pancake mix, processed breakfast cereals, processed meats, salad dressings, non-dairy coffee creamers, and processed snacks. Before labeling a food as lactose-free check the ingredient list for milk, lactose, whey, curds, milk by-products, dry milk solids, and non-fat milk powder.

Special considerations: People with lactose intolerance sometimes do not get enough calcium. Dairy alternatives are often fortified with calcium. Non-dairy sources of calcium include some fish such as salmon and tuna, dark-green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and beans.

Bottom line: Offer milk alternatives. If students suffer from lactose intolerance, consider offering additional lactose-free items.

Students with lactose-intolerance should meet with health and wellness staff to ensure their nutritional needs are met and to discuss the benefits of taking a multivitamin.

Source: National Institute of Health. (2009). Lactose Intolerance. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. NIH Publication No. 09-2751. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from


What is a gluten-free diet? Gluten-free diets do not contain wheat, rye, or barley, or products that contain these grains.

Why would a student eat a gluten-free diet? Students with celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance require gluten-free diets. Celiac disease is common, effecting approximately 1 in 133 people. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten-free diets have been marketed for weight loss, but they have not been shown to be effective.

Gluten-free choices in the cafeteria: People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance must avoid most grains, cereals, pastas, and many processed foods. Good substitutes include potato, rice, quinoa, and buckwheat. Gluten-free products are widely available from food manufacturers and distributors. Processed foods that may contain gluten include: bouillon cubes, candy, potato chips, processed meats (e.g., cold cuts, hot dogs), French fries, gravy, rice mixes, sauces, soups, soy sauce, and vegetables in sauce.

Special considerations: If students on gluten-free diets consume alternate grains, their nutrient needs should be met. Students on gluten-free diets should work closely with the health and wellness staff and/or their personal physician and dietician.

Source: National Institute of Health. (2008). Celiac Disease. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. NIH Publication No. 08-4269. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from

Diabetic/Low Fat/Low Cholesterol/Low Sodium Diets

It is important that all people, including those with chronic health conditions, eat a healthy diet that includes the correct amounts of nutrients. Ensure healthy, whole foods are available for all students. Students should eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and/or vegetarian protein sources, dairy or dairy alternatives. Fried and processed foods should be minimized. A healthy diet consists of the same foods that help control these medical conditions.

When planning meals, students with diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure should always follow the advice of their physician and ​dietitian. Health and wellness and foodservice staff are encouraged to collaborate to ensure that appropriate foods are available and that students understand the choices.

Web Resource:American Diabetes Association Student Resources — Provides useful information about diabetes and encourages teens to take action to manage their disease.

Other Diets to Manage Digestive Diseases

For a full list of diseases and recommended diets, visit the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse at


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