Eating a plant based diet that is naturally low in fat and cholesterol, and high in fiber offers significant health benefits. As a group, vegetarians have a lower risk for developing many chronic diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer, adult onset diabetes and obesity. Vegetarian living is also good for your budget since plant products tend to be less expensive than meats; and good for the environment as fewer resources are used to grow plants than raise animals.
What, exactly, is a Vegetarian?
A vegetarian is someone whose diet is composed primarily of plant foods.
- The semi-vegetarian consumes dairy products, egg, chicken and seafood. This is the least restrictive category. Semi-vegetarians eat everything except the flesh and organs of mammals.
- The pesco-vegetarian eats dairy products, eggs and seafood, but no other animal flesh.
- The lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats dairy product and eggs, but no animal flesh.
- The lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products but no eggs or animal flesh.
- The ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but avoids dairy products and animal flesh.
- The vegan is the strictest of all the categories. Vegans eat no animal products of any kind, including gelatin and whey.
Don’t Miss Out on these Nutrients
Any type of vegetarian eating style can supply your body with all the necessary nutrients as long as foods are carefully chosen. Vegans need to pay special attention to vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc.
- Vitamin B12: Look for breakfast cereals, soy milk products or veggie burgers that are fortified with vitamin B12. Vegans may also want to consider a vitamin B12 supplement or nutritional yeast.
- Vitamin D: It isn’t an issue if you drink milk or if you are regularly exposed to sunlight. Vegans, however, need to be careful to get enough vitamin D, especially in the winter in northern climates. If you are a vegan, choose breakfast cereals and soy beverages that are fortified with vitamin D. You may also want to consider a vitamin D supplement.
- Calcium: Vegans can get enough calcium from plant foods alone, but it will take careful planning. Try tofu processed with calcium, calcium-fortified soy beverages, broccoli, seeds like sunflower seeds, nuts, legumes, some greens (kale, collards, mustard greens), okra, rutabaga, bok choy, dried figs and calcium-fortified orange juice and breakfast cereals.
- Iron: Foods of plant origin contain iron, but it is not absorbed as well as iron from meat and other foods of animal origin. Include vitamin C rich foods like citrus fruits and juices, broccoli, tomatoes and green peppers at every meal to improve iron absorption. Plant sources that contain iron are legumes, iron-fortified breads and cereals, whole grain products, tofu, spinach, seeds, prune juice, dried fruit and blackstrap molasses.
- Zinc: Most vegetarian diets supply enough zinc if a variety of foods like whole-wheat bread, legumes, tofu, seeds and nuts are eaten.
Going vegetarian can be a gradual process, take it at your own pace.
- Try calcium-fortified soy milk instead of regular milk.
- Use half the cheese called for in recipes.
- Gradually cut back on the amount of meat in your own recipes – make spaghetti sauce with half the usual amount of ground beef and add vegetables; try tacos with half ground beef and half beans.
- Take advantage of new meatless products - try veggie burgers, bean burritos, hearty lentil and bean soups, and meatless sloppy joe or chili mix. Check the natural food section of your store to see what’s new.
- Switch to trans-fatty acid free margarine instead of butter.
- Experiment with soy products. Try tofu in pasta and stir fry dishes.