*[Image Goes Here]* Vegetarianism is an increasingly popular lifestyle, especially among young women. What many are not prepared for are the changes required to adopt a healthy vegetarian lifestyle. If followed incorrectly, vegetarian eating can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Vegetarian styles of eating exclude animal products to varying degrees. For example, vegans exclude all animal products, while lacto-ovo vegetarians may include some dairy and egg products in their diet. An omnivore includes meat.
People choose to avoid animal products for varying reasons, including health, environmental, ethical/moral, religious or economic concerns. Whatever the reason, people who are thinking of becoming vegetarian need to realize there is more involved than simply eliminating a piece of meat from one’s plate. It means substituting other foods to replace the nutrients found in animal products.
What frustrates me is the belief that avoiding meat automatically makes the diet a healthier one. Nutrient availability & absorption is often compromised when animal foods are eliminated or severely restricted leading to nutrient deficiencies. Vegetarians must plan meals carefully to ensure they are including & maximizing absorption of all nutrients.
Are you familiar with tahini, chard, lentils or soy foods? Have you ever tried these foods and if you did, were they enjoyable? Sometimes we are not partial to foods that are beneficial to a vegetarian diet. Learning to incorporate vegetarian foods into a regular eating plan can be difficult especially if you grew up in an omnivore home & were not often exposed to traditional vegetarian foods. On the other hand, with innovation, planning & effort, vegetarian dishes can be delicious. Keep in mind though, if the people you live with are not vegetarians are you prepared to purchase and prepare your own vegetarian meals? Are your parents prepared to do this for you?
Nutrients that may be limited on a vegetarian diet include protein, Vitamins D and B12, calcium, iron and zinc. It’s important to note that although a vitamin/mineral supplement can help ensure you are getting some of these nutrients, it cannot provide calories and protein which are vital to good health. If vegetarian, one must be careful throughout the life cycle, particularly during special times such as pregnancy, infancy, childhood and adolescence, where growth demands cannot be compromised.
For vegetarian sources of each of these important nutrients go to the website www.dietitians.ca/eatwell, click on “Factsheets” and then “Vegetarian Eating.”
There are advantages to a vegetarian lifestyle. Besides being delicious, vegetarian diets are often lower in saturated fat and cholesterol while being higher in fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals. This can lower a person’s risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, & heart disease.
What is often forgotten is that a healthy omnivore diet emphasizing whole grain breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables while being lower in fat can also lower the risk of these diseases.
Five different research studies comparing healthy vegetarians and omnivores found no difference in mortality from several types of diseases including cancer & heart disease. The conclusion: lifestyle rather than diet appeared to be the most important determinant in health risk, i.e.– avoiding meat did not make a difference.
As with any style of eating, vegetarians enjoy health benefits only when their diet is balanced, varied and meets energy and nutrient needs. If you are thinking of going vegetarian consult a Registered Dietitian for advice on non-meat food choices & meal planning to ensure you are meeting your nutrient requirements.
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