To Your Health
October, 2007 (Vol. 01, Issue 10)
Share |

Going Veggie?

By Meghan Vivo

It's a common misconception that adopting a vegetarian diet means eating a limited number of basic, bland foods. Wrong. In fact, these days, even conventional supermarkets and restaurants offer a variety of tasty meatless options. Here's a brief introduction to the health benefits - and potential pitfalls - of going veggie.

To eat meat or not to eat meat - the decision is unquestionably a personal one. For decades, choosing not to eat meat and other animal products was considered "alternative." Although vegetarianism is still a minority approach, it has grown steadily in popularity over the years. The American Dietetic Association has officially endorsed vegetarianism, concluding that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

Vegetarianism Defined

Vegetarian sandwich. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark The main premise of a vegetarian diet is eating plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils, nuts and seeds. The three major groups of vegetarians include: 1) vegans, the strictest type, who eat only plant-based foods and completely remove all foods from animals and animal products from their diets (including honey and gelatin); 2) lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy products but exclude eggs, meat, fish and poultry; and 3) lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat dairy products and eggs but omit all meat products.

Vegetarian hamburger. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In addition to consuming all types of plant-based foods, vegetarians have a number of meatless options, such as tofu dogs, soy burgers or texturized vegetable protein, which simulate the taste and texture of meat and often have fewer calories and less fat. If you don't like a particular product the first time you try it, try a different brand or method of preparation the second time. For example, most people have definite brand preferences in veggie burgers, and the taste can vary drastically depending whether you microwave, bake or grill them.

Health Benefits

Since cholesterol is found in animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs, going veggie can be an ideal way to consume less fat and cholesterol and more fiber, without sacrificing taste and variety. Many studies have shown that replacing animal protein with plant protein lowers blood cholesterol levels. Additionally, a large number of studies, dating back to the early 1920s, indicate that a vegetarian diet may lower blood pressure.

A vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and fiber and low in fat also can help control diabetes and may help prevent cancer. Studies show that vegetarians' death rates from cancer are only one-half to three-quarters of the general population's rates. Breast and colon cancer rates also are lower in vegetarians, as is the likelihood of developing kidney stones or gallstones. While the reasons for these health benefits aren't entirely understood, the evidence supports the benefits of a well-planned vegetarian diet.

Common Pitfalls

Although the potential health benefits are clear, a wholesome vegetarian diet is more complex than simply deleting meat from your favorite meals, filling up on fast food or eating a salad a day. Many vegetarians report feeling tired, weak and generally unhealthy, usually because they aren't supplementing their diets with the nutrients meat would ordinarily provide. Here are a few key nutrients you'll need to focus on to make sure you're getting proper nutrition: