Lives Made Better | Summer 2011

Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet for You?

According to the American Dietetic Association, most people throughout history have eaten primarily plant-based diets. More people in this country are embracing vegetarian diets. Are they for you? The information below may help you decide.

What is a vegetarian diet?

There’s a surprising amount of variation in what folks who describe themselves as vegetarians consume. All vegetarian diets rely heavily on fruit and vegetables, but there are four primary distinctions:
  • Vegan, or strict vegetarian—an exclusively plant-based diet that excludes all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy foods
  • Lacto-vegetarian—a diet that excludesmeat, poultry, fish, and eggs but includes dairy foods
  • Lacto-ovovegetarian—a diet that excludes meat, poultry, and fish but includes eggs and dairy foods
  • Flexitarian—a semivegetarian diet comprised mostly of plant-based foods but with meat consumption from time to time

Are there health benefits to eating a vegetarian diet?

Because vegetarians consume little, if any, food derived from animals, they consume less total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than nonvegetarians. This eating pattern reduces their risk for heart disease and heart attacks. Numerous studies have also found that vegetarians have a lower risk for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers.

However, vegetarian diets that are too high in calories and saturated fat are unhealthy.

How can I be sure I’m getting enough of the nutrients I need if I eat only plant foods?

One way is to eat a variety of foods. You should also keep the following considerations in mind:
  • Protein. Vegetarians can meet theirprotein needs by eating beans, nuts, nut butters, peas, and soy foods such as tofu, soy milk, and tempeh.
  • Iron. To reduce the risk for iron deficiency, vegetarians need to consume ironrich foods, such as spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, molasses, whole grains, and dried fruits.
  • Calcium. Vegetarians can fill their calcium needs by including calcium-fortified orange juice and breakfast cereals, bok choy, collard and turnip greens, and soy foods.

Can children and pregnant women safely eat vegetarian diets?

According to the American Dietetic Association, infants, children, adolescents, and pregnant and breastfeeding women can safely eat a nonmeat diet that contains adequate amounts of nutrients. Registered dietitians can help plan a plant-based diet that is healthy for growing bodies.

One source of additional information: the Vegetarian Society at www.vegsoc.org.