Natural Health

A Primer on Vegetarianism

By: Jody Cross
Published: Thursday, 20 March 2008
stir fry vegetables in a wok

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Vegetarians don’t just push the meat off their plates; they have a plan, or actually many plans.

There are many different vegetarian diets. All of them involve eating plant foods, but from there on things get a little murkier. To be a vegetarian you don’t have to clearly fit into any one category.

Vegetarians seem to have a vocabulary unto themselves and the terminology can be intimidating. A couple of prefixes you’ll want to know are: Lacto (milk), and Ovo (egg).

If your desire is to be a complete vegetarian, (vegan), there’s a plan for you. If you think you’d like to be a “sort of” vegetarian, (Flexitarian), there’s a plan for you. If you can’t make up your mind; you guessed it, there’s a plan for you.

Strict vegetarians eat (plant foods) plus:

• Lacto-ovo vegetarian – Eats dairy and eggs; no meat
• Lacto-vegetarian – Eats dairy; no eggs; no meat
• Ovo-vegetarian – Eats eggs; no dairy; no meat
• Vegan – Eats only plant foods; no dairy, no eggs, no meat, and some eat no honey
• Raw vegan – Eats same as vegan, but food is not to be heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit

Semi-vegetarians (eat plant foods, but note the type in macrobiotic) plus:

• Macrobiotic – Eats only unprocessed plant foods; occasional fish; emphasis on Asian vegetables, such as daikon (a type of radish), and sea vegetables; avoids refined oils and sugar
• Semi- or partial vegetarian – Eats dairy and eggs; poultry and fish; no red meat
• Pescatarian – Eats dairy and eggs; fish; no other meat
• Pollotarianism – Eats dairy and eggs; fowl and poultry
• Flexitarian - Eats mostly a vegetarian diet, but does occasionally eat meat

The reasons why people become vegetarians are as varied as the diets themselves; sometimes it’s simply a desire to eat healthier. Other times it’s because of religious, environmental, or ethical beliefs, or simply because they were raised that way.

A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide good nutrition. Even the strict lacto-vegetarian and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets contain some animal products, and are therefore nutritionally sound. More planning is necessary to ensure adequate nutrition on a strictly vegan diet.

Dietary needs vary during different life stages. For example: Special care is needed when planning a vegetarian diet for children and adolescents, because at these life stages more protein is needed for normal growth and development.

An unplanned vegetarian diet may be lacking in the following nutrients:

• Vitamin B12
• Vitamin D
• Iron
• Riboflavin
• Zinc
• Calcium
• Protein

Vitamin B12: Vegetarians who eat dairy products and/or eggs probably get adequate amounts of vitamin B12. Vegans, however, may benefit from a Vitamin B12 supplement.

Vitamin D: This vitamin helps your body absorb and use calcium. Those vegetarians who do not consume dairy products should consider taking supplemental vitamin D, either in a multivitamin, or as a calcium supplement with vitamin D. If taken as a supplement, it should contain no more than 100% of the Recommended Daily Value because larger doses can be dangerous.

Iron: Iron is found in enriched cereals and breads, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, prune juice, molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and soybeans. Cooking food in iron skillets or pans also adds iron to the diet.
Eating foods that are rich in vitamin C will help your body absorb the iron found in plant foods. Foods rich in vitamin C are citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, green peppers, strawberries, cabbage and broccoli.

Calcium: Calcium is the mineral that helps build strong teeth and bones and the American Diabetic Association recommends we get at least 1300 mg of calcium a day. Some sources of calcium are milk, or fortified soymilk, yogurt, cheese, dark green vegetables like broccoli or spinach, beans, dried figs, sunflower seeds, Tofu enriched with calcium, and some fruit juices. Vegans may find it a little easier to get the recommended daily allowance of calcium if they take a calcium supplement.

Zinc is an essential component of many enzymes and aids in cell division and the formation of proteins. Whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat germ are all good sources of zinc.

Vegetarian diets typically contain less fat and cholesterol, and more fiber than a standard meat based diet. Advocates of vegetarian diets contend that vegetarians are less likely to die from heart disease, or to be obese, or to develop high blood pressure, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or colon cancer.

Protein is necessary to maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs.
Some essential forms of protein must be obtained from the foods we eat.
Vegetarians can get essential protein from Brewer’s yeast, certain nuts, soybeans, cottonseed and the germ of grains. To ensure that protein needs are met, adult vegetarians must eat a wide variety of plant foods and also consume enough food to meet their calorie needs.

Deficiencies in protein can cause loss of weight, tiredness and lack of energy. Lack of sufficient protein will also lower the body’s resistance to disease. If children do not get adequate protein, their growth can be stunted. Lack of protein over an extended length of time can lead to liver damage and eventually to death.

We know now what vegetarians don’t eat, but what exactly do they eat? The answer is many good things; like Mexican foods, enchiladas, tacos, or maybe burritos filled with potatoes, onions and beans. There are also dishes like spiced cauliflower and cheese, or baked potatoes with cheese sauce, topped with green onions. For a break, while out shopping or running errands, a vegetarian might pull into a Burger King and have a BK Veggie Burger.

Variety is the goal of the vegetarian’s diet. The diets are built around a variety of grains; rice, barley, oats, and grain products like whole wheat bread, pasta, corn tortillas, and enriched cereals. All kinds of vegetables and legumes (peas and beans) make their way to the vegetarian’s table; and also a plethora of fruits, nuts and seeds. Meat substitutes, tofu and other foods made from soybeans and rice also are prominent in the vegetarian diet. And of course, for those who eat eggs and dairy there’s all variety of cheeses like American and Cheddar and eggs served as omelets or made into egg salad sandwiches or as potato salad. The list is as long as your imagination.

Here are a few vegetarians you might recognize: Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Whoopie Goldberg, Dustin Hoffman, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Mark Twain, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Vegetarianism just might be for you and in becoming one, you might find a healthier lifestyle.