What is a Vegetarian and Vegan Diet?
Although there are many variations of vegetarian diets, they all base their diets on foods of plant origin, but there are different levels of vegetarianism according to how much food derived from animals is also eaten. The groups can generally be split into 5 major categories:
- ‘Semi vegetarian’ eats poultry and/or fish, dairy foods and eggs, but no red meat;
- ‘Lacto vegetarian’ consumes dairy foods but no meat, poultry, fish or eggs;
- ’Lacto-ovo vegetarian’ includes dairy foods and eggs, but no meat, poultry or fish;
- ‘Pescetarian’ includes fish and other seafood, but no meat or poultry (while eggs and/or dairy foods may or may not be eaten); and
- A ‘vegan’ eats only foods of plant origin.
There are also some extreme forms of vegetarianism, like ‘fruitarians’ that eat nothing requiring a living organism to be killed, restricting their diet to fruits, nuts, honey and olive oil.
Why Go Vegetarian or Vegan?
Many people are vegetarians as a result of religious beliefs and some because they don’t want to support animals suffering. A lot of people also chose to not eat red meat as a result of research that links red meat consumption and health issues. Heart diseases and high cholesterol levels are two examples.
Vegans would almost certainly agree with the moral argument but would probably add that, unlike milk and eggs, plants contain no cholesterol and most plant foods have little ‘saturated fat‘ (a type of fat that is associated with increased risk of heart disease). But it is worth noting that coconut oil and palm oil are exceptions, in that most of the fat from these plant foods is saturated. However, please stay as far away as possible from palm oil as this breeds highly unethical behaviour against wild life (google or youtube it if you need more insight).
Arguments for a vegetarian diet are the higher levels of many vitamins, fibre, antioxidants and other substances that are of nutritional benefit in foods of plant origin.
Many vegetarians believe that, in addition to health benefits and moral considerations, there is also reduced environmental degradation (i.e. increased sustainability) associated with vegetarianism.
Do I Get All the Necessary Nutrients With a Vegetarian Diet?
Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, have been consistently found to provide the full range of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fibre necessary for optimal nutritional status.
However, vegetarian diets can lead to low iron status. Vegetarian teenage girls and women of child-bearing age are particularly at risk of iron-deficiency anaemia because red meat a good source of iron. Combining a source of vitamin C (such as fruit or fruit juice) with wheat-based cereal foods will increase the absorption of the iron available in the cereal. Eggs, legumes (a term that includes peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy foods) and nuts are also significant sources of iron.
Do I Get Enough Nutrients With a Vegan diet?
A well-planned vegan diet can meet all nutritional requirements. However, some are at risk of developing B12 deficiency unless special effort is made to eat foods with this vitamin, or a vitamin supplement is taken. Although any diet that fails to address healthy eating principles can be deficient in essential nutrients, vegans may need to be especially cautious with their eating habits with regard to nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, selenium and omega-3 fats.
These nutrients can still be absorbed via supplementation. Supplement vendors like GNC, the Vitamin Shoppe, local grocery stores or online vendors such as Powder City provide the aforementioned nutrients in supplement form. It is most cost effective to purchase your supplements in bulk powder form. (ex: http://www.powdercity.com for Zinc)
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods, and studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans generally have lower levels of vitamin B12 than do omnivores. While it can take many years to become deficient, anyone following a vegan diet who doesn’t include a reliable source of vitamin B12 is at risk of becoming deficient over time. If you follow a vegan diet (or you are vegetarian but don’t eat many dairy foods or eggs) you should either take a vitamin B12 supplement or include foods fortified with vitamin B12 in your diet regularly. This is particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding women, to reduce the risk of deficiency in their babies.
If you’re tired of getting ripped off for vitamins and supplements from your local grocery or department stores, affordable and high quality supplements are at online retailers like Powder City or Hard Rhino. Their customer service is top notch and they offer free shipping to orders over $25.
Do I Get Enough Protein on a Vegetarian or Vegan diet?
One of the first things that stops people from going vegetarian or vegan is that they think their only source of protein is meat. Grain foods, legumes, potatoes, seeds and nuts are good sources of protein. Pepitas seeds are a good source – 36.7% of its weight is actually protein!
Although vegetarians and vegans have to make an effort to get enough of certain vitamins, is fair to say that vegetarians in Western nations often eat a diet that is closer to the recommended pattern of food intake. Vegetarian diets include higher intakes of cereal foods, vegetables (including legumes) and fruits—and therefore of dietary fibre—with lower intakes of fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt.
Vegetarians in Western countries experience significantly less cancer, less heart disease, fewer strokes and generally live longer
What are the Benefits of Being on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?
There is substantial evidence supporting that vegetarians in Western countries experience significantly less cancer, less heart disease, fewer strokes, and generally live longer than omnivores. Studies has shown that higher intake of beneficial dietary factors—available only in foods of plant origin— explains the better overall health of vegetarians.
Much research is still needed to determine the optimal diet for health and longevity (living to a ‘ripe old age’). Some nutritionists believe that a predominantly vegetarian diet, with low-moderate quantities of lean meat and moderate quantities of low- or reduced-fat dairy products will produce the best long-term health outcome. However, it is still true that strict vegetarianism (particularly the lacto and lacto-ovo varieties) is associated with better health outcome than an omnivorous diet.