Nutrition - Vegetarian and vegan diets

Most vegetarians don't eat meat, poultry, or fish. Their diets consist mainly of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes (peas and beans), nuts, and seeds. Eggs and dairy products may also be excluded. Vegans (pronounced VEE-ghans) don't eat any animal products including eggs, dairy, or even honey. Others who occasionally eat meat (usually chicken or fish) may also call themselves vegetarians, although they are really only part-time vegetarians.

Only about one percent of the population in the United States is vegetarian. There are many reasons why a person may choose to be vegetarian. The most influential reason for adopting a vegetarian diet worldwide is food availability. In many parts of the world plant foods are abundant whereas animal foods are scarce or too expensive. In the United States, people have adopted a vegetarian lifestyle for one of several reasons. They may believe it is more healthful, their religious or ethical beliefs exclude meat, or they may be concerned for the environment or the treatment of animals raised for consumption. Research has shown that vegetarians have lower rates of some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Vegetarians are also less likely to have gall stones, kidney stones, and constipation.

Vegetarian foods are not just fruits and vegetables. Peanut butter, rice, tofu, pasta, among many others, help round out a vegetarian diet. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Vegetarian foods are not just fruits and vegetables. Peanut butter, rice, tofu, pasta, among many others, help round out a vegetarian diet. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

Types of Vegetarian Diets

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes milk, milk products and eggs.
  • Lacto-vegetarian diet includes milk and milk products.
  • Vegan diet includes only plant foods.

Vegetarian diets can be healthy and adequate but may take a little more planning to ensure nutritional adequacy. This is particularly true of vegan diets. The more people restrict their diets, the more difficult it is to get all of the nutrients they need. Vegans have a difficult time getting vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, and zinc because vegan diets exclude dairy and meat, both of which provide the primary sources for the aforementioned nutrients.

Becoming a vegetarian isn't as simple as some people think. It doesn't mean just excluding meat from the diet. Beginning a vegetarian diet in this manner may shortchange the body of essential nutrients important for growth and development. If one is considering a vegetarian diet for any reason, one should become educated about it and perhaps even speak with parents and doctors about a healthy eating plan. Common vegetarian foods include macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, pizza, eggplant parmesan, vegetable or bean soup, bean burritos, and peanut butter and jelly.

It's important to note, however, that growing children and pregnant or nursing women should proceed with a vegetarian diet with caution because of special nutrition needs. The key to a vegetarian diet—as with any other diet—is to eat a variety of foods and limit the amount of fats and sweets. One should be prepared with the right tools to get started and remember to eat the following foods to obtain these nutrients that could be lacking in a vegetarian diet that is not properly planned:

Protein: soy products, tofu, legumes (peas and beans), nuts, seeds. Calcium: milk, leafy dark green vegetables, legumes, fortified soy or rice milk, tofu. Iron: cereals and grains, leafy dark green vegetables. Vitamin B-12: dairy or eggs, supplements for vegans.

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