The Basics of Vegetarian Dieting

By Renee Rogers RD, LDN

The American Dietetic Association states that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian and vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

“Vegetarian” is a flexible term used to describe people who exclude animal-derived foods from their diet.

Most can fall into one of these categories:

  • Lacto-vegetarian – Consumes dairy products, but not meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – Consumes dairy products and eggs, but not meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
  • Vegan – Excludes all animal-derived foods, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.

National polls show that people’s interest in adopting a veggie lifestyle is growing. Which is not surprising considering the overwhelming amount of health advantages associated with vegetarian diets. Research shows that vegetarians as a whole have lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, lover risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and lower overall cancer rates.

Vegetarians also tend to be leaner with a lower body mass index (BMI). In fact, a recent study found that people who consume a vegetarian diet weight about 15 percent less than non-vegetarians.

Cutting meat out of your diet is not, however, an instant route to wellness. Most of the health benefits associated with vegetarian diets are related to the foods included, not excluded, in this way of eating.

A vegetarian diet must be appropriately planned to reap all the benefits. Eating poorly on a vegetarian diet is still easy to do. The healthiest vegetarian diets contain lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. They also take into consideration specific nutrients, which tend to be lower in plant-based diets.

The abundance of plant-based foods in a vegetarian diet provides an array of beneficial nutrients with health-promoting properties. For example, fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other healthful phytochemicals tend to be higher in a vegetarian diet. Plant-based diets also tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol due to the exclusion of animal products.

Individuals following a vegetarian, especially vegan, diet should be careful to get enough certain vitamins and nutrients.
Vegetarians should make sure to get:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – Typically found in fish, eggs, and algae and important for cardiovascular health, eye, and brain development. Vegetarians should include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, seaweeds, and soy.
  • Iron – Our bodies don’t absorb iron in plant foods as well as animal foods. Therefore, vegetarians should include plenty of iron sources in their diet such as fortified cereal, oatmeal, lentils, beans, tofu and spinach. Eating iron rich foods with vitamin C (such as citrus fruits and bell peppers) increases the body’s ability to absorb iron.
  • Zinc – Zinc can be found in soy products, legumes, grains, cheese, and nuts.
  • Iodine – Kelp, seaweed, iodized salt
  • Calcium – Calcium is important for bone health. Eat low-oxalate greens such as bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale and fortified milk substitutes and cereals.
  • Vitamin D – This vitamin is also key to bone health. Eat fortified milk substitutes and cereals
  • Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 play a key role in brain and nervous system functioning. Vegetarians should consume fortified milk substitutes and cereals or regular milk if they are not vegan.

These nutrients may be low without a balanced vegetarian diet that is properly planned.

Whether you are going full blown vegetarian or just incorporating a few meatless meals into your routine, make sure to plan properly and include plenty of health-promoting plant-based foods into your diet.

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