By Sudha Raj, Assistant Professor of Nutrition, Syracuse University
Vegetarian diets have become more popular, to use or to consider using, as obesity and weight gain explode in the U.S. While they are more popular in some cultures than others, it’s always good to be able to make informed choices. So here are “Health Power Vegetarian Basics”, in two parts.
What a Vegetarian Diet Is
Vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from meat, poultry, fish and fowl or products containing these foods and focusing on foods of plant origin including fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
Factors Contributing to the Spread of Vegetarianism
Across the globe, the practice of vegetarianism evolved more out of necessity because of limited supplies of animal foods as well as the prohibitive (high) cost of such food products. Several other reasons that have contributed to the spread of vegetarianism include health benefits, economics, religion, philosophies, environmental awareness and personal ethics.
Different Types of Vegetarian Eating Practices
Vegans: Avoid all foods of animal origin.
Semi-vegetarians: Avoid or abstain occasionally from certain types of animal foods. For example, some may avoid red meat but eat poultry and fish or some may avoid animal products on certain days.
Lacto-vegetarians:Avoid animal products but eat dairy products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Avoid animal flesh but eat eggs and dairy products.
Pros and Challenges of a Vegetarian Diet
Pros: Well planned vegetarian diets can provide a variety of health benefits. Research with the Seventh-Day Adventist groups in the United Sates as well as populations practicing vegetarianism in other countries has shown health benefits of vegetarian diets:
Vegetarians tend to have lower risks for chronic degenerative diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and certain types of cancer.
Factors contributing to this lowered risk include:
- a reduced intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and total energy in predominantly plant-based diets;
- an increased intake of fruits and vegetables;
- -an excellent source of dietary fiber that contributes to better gastro-intestinal health; and
- a variety of antioxidants and phyto-chemicals that help protect our cells and their membranes from free radical damage.
Challenges of following a vegetarian diet:
- Having an adequate amount of high quality protein can be a concern and challenge, especially in vegans
- Groups that may not get adequate protein include:
persons recovering from illness.
- However, lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians can obtain high quality animal proteins from eggs and dairy foods, thus supplementing the limited amino acids from other plant food sources such as grains and beans. Furthermore, dishes that combine grains, peas, beans and other legumes are by themselves, supplementary in protein value.
- Although vegetarian diets are thought of as being low in fat, individuals who follow a lacto or lacto-ovo vegetarian pattern can consume considerable amounts of fat either by selecting high fat foods or adding considerable amounts of fat in food preparation.
- Micronutrients that are of concern in poorly planned vegetarian diets include vitamin B 12, which is found almost exclusively in animal foods, as well as others such as calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc.
- Vegans are at a greater risk for micro-nutrient deficiency;
- Lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians may receive adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, especially if they consume adequate amounts of dairy products that are naturally good sources of calcium and are also fortified with vitamin D.
- All vegetarians including vegans, lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians who don’t eat flesh foods (meat), can be at risk for iron and zinc deficiency because these minerals are most available from red meats, and least available from dairy products.
- Other heart-healthy nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids that are usually obtained from fatty fish meals are likely to be deficient in vegetarian diets. However, vegetarians can obtain enough of these by including plant sources of these fatty acids, for example, flaxseeds or flax, canola, and nuts such as walnuts in their diets.
Remember the Health Power motto: Knowledge + Action = Power!