LRH Offers Advice Regarding Vegetarian Diets
October 1 kicked off National Vegetarian Month. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, 2.5 percent of adults in the United States (about 4.8 million people) follow vegetarian diets. These numbers are expected to increase over the next decade. Many restaurants, college food services, and even the military now offer vegetarian meals routinely. Growth can also be seen in the number of specialized vegetarian products available in supermarkets. Lakes Regional Healthcare encourages healthy food choices when choosing a vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, fish, fowl, or products containing these foods. The eating patterns of vegetarians vary considerably, which is why there are generally four categories of vegetarians. Vegans eat grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. Lacto-vegetarians add dairy to the vegan diet, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians add both dairy products and eggs to their vegan diet. Semi-vegetarians eat meat, fish, and fowl on a limited basis.
Eating patterns vary considerably with vegetarians, as do the reasons why people choose vegetarian diets. Some vegetarians follow a meatless diet for religious purposes. Others follow vegetarian diets for animal cruelty reasons and for eco-friendly reasons. Often, vegetarians claim the reason is for health benefits. Several studies associate vegetarian diets with decreased health risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, renal disease, and diverticular disease.
The American Dietetic Association states, “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” According to Lakes Regional Healthcare Registered Dietitian Beth Samuelson, vegetarian diets are often lower in fat and cholesterol, but higher in carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, folate, and antioxidants like vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and phytochemicals. Nutrients such as protein, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and iodine, in the vegetarian diet, particularly the vegan diet, can be lower than recommended.
Samuelson said, “The general goals of a nutritionally sound vegetarian diet are to not rely heavily on highly processed food items and to get the proper amount of protein and vitamins and minerals required for good health through a balanced diet.”
Highly processed foods such as chips, crackers, sodas, and cookies, should not make up the bulk of a day’s food intake. These foods are farther from their natural state and don’t provide much, if any, nutritional value. Samuelson said, “It’s best to eat foods that are closest to their natural state, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes for good health. With highly processed foods, nutrients and flavors are lost in processing and have to be added back in. You end up not getting the entire benefit of the original food, which may compromise your health over time.”
In order to get the proper amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals with a vegetarian diet, Samuelson offers some suggestions.
• A variety of plant proteins such as grains, nuts, and legumes should be consumed throughout the day. According to Samuelson, if total calorie intake is not high enough to meet energy needs, protein will be used for energy and not for re-building of tissues.
• Vitamin B12 aids in the prevention of anemia and is found in animal proteins. For this reason, a vegetarian must add it to their diet through food items that are fortified with it. She recommends people to look at a food item’s packaging to see if it is fortified with Vitamin B12.
• Iron and zinc are also important minerals for growth in children, skin, immune function, and blood health. Spinach, tofu, beans, and fortified cereals are sources of iron and zinc.
• Calcium is important for bone health and fluid balance, but can be a missing mineral in a vegetarian diet without dairy products. Therefore, vegans are encouraged to meet their calcium requirements by eating eight servings of greens each day. Broccoli, Napa cabbage, collards, kale, calcium fortified fruit juices, and calcium supplements are sources of calcium.
• Vitamin D promotes immune health and bone health and can be found primarily in oily fish and fortified milk. However, vegans can meet their Vitamin D needs through sunlight exposure and supplements.
• Iodine is a mineral that aids in thyroid health. Vegetarians that bypass iodized table salt and turn to sea salt will most likely need iodine supplements to meet their needs.
Samuelson said, “As with any diet, nutritional needs can be met with diligent planning of meals and snacks. I’m happy to provide consults to anyone considering a vegetarian diet to ensure they meet their nutritional needs for optimal health.”