Deconstructing the Vegetarian Diet

Once upon a time the vegetarian diet was considered nutritionally inadequate by researchers. These days, responsible vegetarianism is considered to be both nutritionally adequate, and helpful in the prevention and treatment of disease. Here’s what you need to know about the lifestyle to make the right call for you.

Deconstructing the Vegetarian DietPhoto: ShutterStock

Who’s A Vegetarian?

Technically, a vegetarian is defined as a person who does not eat meat, fish or fowl or products that contain them. However, in reality, the eating patterns of vegetarians can vary considerably, from strict vegetarians (vegans), to those who include dairy and/or fish in their diet. Some self-described vegetarians may even include occasional fish, chicken, and meat in their diet.

Responsible Vegetarianism

The nutritional needs of vegetarians are the same as those of non-vegetarians and can mostly be met by following general dietary recommendations. However, adjustments need to be made in a few areas to make up for the lack of animal sources of several nutrients, including protein, vitamins D and B12, calcium, zinc, and iron. Here are some simple rules to follow:

1. Choose a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and, if desired, dairy products and eggs.

2. Choose whole, unrefined foods often and limit highly sweetened, fatty, and heavily refined foods.

3. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables.

4. If dairy products and eggs are included, choose lower-fat dairy products and use both eggs and dairy products in moderation.

5. Use a regular source of vitamin B12 and, if sunlight exposure is limited, vitamin D.

Health Benefits of Crossing to the Veggie Side

Lose Weight

Plant-based diets have long been associated with decreased obesity, which is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers. Some factors that may help explain lower body weight in vegetarians include lower fat intake, higher fibre consumption, and greater consumption of vegetables.

Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

Numerous studies have shown a decreased incidence of heart disease among vegetarians compared with non-vegetarians. This may be explained in part by lower blood cholesterol levels in vegetarians. Compared to non-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans have blood cholesterol levels 14 per cent and 35 per cent lower, respectively. Although most vegetarians don’t eat low-fat diets, their saturated fat intake is considerably lower than that of non-vegetarians. They also consume between 50 to 100 per cent more fibre, which helps reduce blood cholesterol levels. In addition, a vegetarian diet has the benefit of the many phytochemicals found in plant foods that have antioxidant properties, and antioxidants make blood cholesterol less likely to stick to artery walls.

Lower Your Rate Of Hypertension

In addition to having lower blood pressure in general, vegetarians also have lower rates of hypertension (high blood pressure) than non-vegetarians. Researchers have looked at possible explanations for this difference, including lower body weight, decreased dietary fat, absence of meat or milk protein, or differences in potassium, magnesium, or calcium intakes, but so far they have not been able to draw any conclusions.

Cut Chances Of Cancer

Vegetarians in general have a lower cancer rate compared to the general population. This difference is most significant for prostate cancer and colorectal cancer. A number of factors in vegetarian diets may affect cancer risk, such as lower fat consumption, more fibre, more fruits and vegetables, lower levels of heme iron (from animal sources) and higher intake of phytochemicals like isoflavones, hormonelike plant compounds found in soy and other plant foods.

Discourage Diabetes

There is some evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of diabetes. This protective effect may be the result of lower body weight among vegetarians, as well as a higher fibre intake, which can both improve blood sugar control.

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