Many people are choosing to eat less meat and opting for a vegetarian diet, especially in recent years. Reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet include improved health, religious beliefs, ethical reasons, and environmental concerns. Following a vegetarian diet may decrease the risk of chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
All vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish, but there are different types of vegetarianism, which vary in restrictiveness.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: This is the most common vegetarian diet and includes dairy products and eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarian: Includes dairy products, but avoids eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: Includes eggs, but excludes dairy products.
- Vegan: This is the most restrictive vegetarian diet as it excludes dairy products, eggs, and any product derived from animals.
Because vegetarian diets exclude certain foods/food groups, it is important to plan meals to ensure you are getting adequate nutrients. By planning ahead and pairing foods appropriately, you will be able to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Some nutrients of concern with vegetarian diets include:
- Iron: Important for healthy blood, muscles, energy levels, and needed for the prevention of anemia. Vegetarian sources of iron include legumes, tofu, fortified cereals and breads, green leafy vegetables, almonds, cashews, dried apricots, dates, and raisins. Including sources of vitamin C in the diet can help with the absorption of iron.
- Protein: Made up of amino acids, which are referred to as the building blocks of the body, protein is needed to help build muscles, skin, hair, and nails. Sources of protein include legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Depending on which type of vegetarian diet you are following, protein can also be added into the diet through eggs and dairy products.
- Vitamin B12: Important in the production of red blood cells and in the maintenance of healthy nerve cells. Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products, so vegetarians will need to include fortified cereals and soy products that have vitamin B12 added. It may be necessary to supplement with vitamin B12 if you are unable to incorporate an adequate amount through diet alone.
- Calcium: The main role of calcium to maintain healthy bones and teeth. The most common source of calcium is dairy products, so vegetarians excluding dairy will need to include alternate sources. Other calcium-containing foods include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans, and fortified juices, cereals, soy products.
Vegetarians often experience a decreased incidence of chronic disease and lower rates of obesity. With careful planning, a vegetarian diet can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
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