A vegetarian diet is, by definition, a diet which is free from animal flesh, bird and fish. A vegan diet goes a step further and is a type of vegetarian diet which does not involve eating any foods or using any products that are made from animals in any form. There are other forms of vegetarian diets, such as lacto-ovo, which include milk and eggs, but no animal flesh.
Vegetarian and Vegan Health Benefits
The reasons a person chooses a vegetarian or vegan diet are varied. Some choose it for a healthier lifestyle, while others are concerned with philosophical and religious reasons related to eating living things as well as having concerns about the effects the meat industry has on the environment.
Many, however, simply choose a meatless diet because of the following health benefits:
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower levels of saturated fats
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower risk of cancer
- Lower risk of Type 2 diabetes
The Vegetarian and Vegan Problem: Missing Nutrients
A vegetarian diet can be quite healthy; however, the vegetarian needs to be aware that his or her nutritional needs may not be fully met if certain criteria are not followed. By following a meat-free diet, some essential nutrients may be left out.
Proper meal planning is necessary to avoid certain nutritional deficiencies. Elderly people, athletes, and children are particularly at risk of nutritional deficiencies, since one or more of the five food groups are no longer a part of the diet.
The following are the main nutrients that must be supplied in order for your body to remain healthy on a meatless diet:
- Protein – Protein is required for the body to grow and function. When you eliminate meat from your plate, it needs to be replaced with plant sources. Look to soybeans, tofu, tempeh, beans, quinoa, nuts, and flaxseeds, just to name a few. It is a common misconception that protein only comes from meat, as there are many plant sources.
- Calcium – Calcium is a mineral that is needed to build bones. This is especially important for children, athletes, women (to prevent osteoporosis) and the elderly. The traditional sources of calcium from dairy need to be replaced with vegan sources that include, soybeans, tofu, soymilk, turnip greens, fortified cereals, and beans, just to name a few.
- Iron – Iron is an essential mineral used to transport oxygen in the blood to all parts of the body. Lack of this nutrient can cause anemia. As above, animal sources are the best sources of iron. Foods like oysters, clams, liver from different animals are at the top of the list of iron-rich foods. Plant foods contain iron, and include but are not limited to quinoa, beans, potatoes, soybeans, spirulina, and tofu. Phytic acids found in grains and legumes can get in the way of absorption of iron. This can be minimized by soaking the legumes and eating unleavened grains like crackers. Cooking also helps with the removal of the acid.
- B12 – B12 is a vitamin that is unusable by humans in plant sources. Lack of this vitamin causes nerve problems, depression, tiredness, weakness, to name a few. Best sources include clam, liver and mackerel. Vegans are particularly at risk for lack of this vitamin.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which enhances the absorption of iron, calcium, and zinc. Lack of this vitamin is associated with high blood pressure, osteoporosis, dental cavities, possible erectile dysfunction and problems with blood cholesterol. Sunlight is actually the best source of vitamin D. Vegans can theirs from fortified non-dairy milks, and cereals.
- Zinc – This mineral is necessary for creating DNA, building proteins and for a healthy immune system. Deficiencies include impotence, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. The best sources of this vitamin are from animal sources and include oysters, beef, and lamb.
Vegetarian diets become unhealthy when these nutrient deficiency risks are not addressed and proper food replacements for meat sources are not made. Vegetarians can avoid missing out important nutrients by supplementation and incorporating specific vegetable products that provide them.
Other Concerns for Vegetarians and Vegans
Eating Too Much Junk Food
Some believe that eating a plant based diet can somehow make up for other poor food choices. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Vegans and vegetarians cannon eat unlimited amounts of French fries, chips, cookies and cake. They should not overindulge in junk food, ice cream, or soda. Candy, cookies, donuts, Doritos, cupcakes, and muffins are vegan, but loaded with empty calories, fat and sugar that can quickly negate all the health benefits that vegetarian eating has to offer.
Just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It is still important to read labels, eat whole food, make smart food choices and not overindulge in junk or that vegetarian diet can quickly turn unhealthy.
Vegetarians and vegans who follow a sound nutritionally balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts are making smart choices, but yes, exercise is still important. A plant diet cannot compensate for all the health benefits offered by regular physical activity.
While vegetarians and vegans can stay healthy, these diets require you to take care to plan your diet well, get all the nutrients your body needs and follow good exercise habits. As with any popular diet, it’s also good to note that every diet isn’t right for every person because of individual health needs, body type and personalized nutritional requirements.