The Pros (and Cons) of Vegetarian Diets: When followed well, vegetarian diets can meet all of your nutritional needs.

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Author: Densie Webb
Date: Nov. 2020
From: Environmental Nutrition(Vol. 43, Issue 11)
Publisher: Belvoir Media Group, LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 797 words
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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A recent poll found that about one in ten Americans say they follow a vegetarian diet. But vegetarianism isn't a single diet. It can mean very different things to different people. For the strictest adherents--vegans--it means consuming no animal products whatsoever. For others, it means eating a mostly plant-based diet, but including eggs and dairy foods. For some it means including fish and seafood, but no meat. For still others it means a plant-based diet, while indulging in the occasional serving of beef or chicken. The reasons people follow vegetarian diets can be as varied as the diets themselves.

Why Vegetarianism? "There are multiple reasons why people make the switch to a vegetarian diet," says Melissa Prest, PhD, DCN, RDN, co-founder of Omni Counseling & Nutrition based in Denver and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For some, it's simply a matter of personal preference, a dislike of meat, or because of concern for the environment or concern for animals. Sometimes it is because a good friend or a partner has decided to go vegetarian. Health concerns are often cited by people as to why they have adopted a vegetarian diet--and for good reason. Vegetarian diets tend to have fewer calories, more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than non-vegetarian diets. In addition, vegetarian diets have been associated with lower levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and better managed blood sugar levels, which in turn results in the improvement of several health conditions, including lower incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.

                EGG OR DAIRY PRODUCTS

Lacto-ovo-      Includes eggs and dairy products
Lacto-          Includes dairy products, but not
vegetarian      egg products
Ovo-vegetarian  Includes eggs and egg products,
                but no dairy
Pescatarian     Excludes meat, but includes fish
                and seafood
Vegan           Excludes eggs and dairy products,
                and may exclude honey
Raw vegan       Based on vegetables, fruit, nuts
                and seeds, legumes, and sprouted
                grains. The amount of uncooked
                food varies from 75% to 100%

Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Nutrition Concerns. If followed well, vegetarians can meet all of their nutrient needs. But, it's important to keep in mind that foods and ingredients like soft drinks, chips, and hydrogenated palm oil (which is highly saturated) are still vegetarian. The key is to develop a diet plan that consists of nutritious plant foods. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help with that.

Dietitian Prest points to omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin [B.sub.12], iodine, calcium, and vitamin D as being potential problem nutrients--"potential" being the operative word. They are only issues if you don't follow advice for eating a nutrient-rich diet and, for some, taking the needed supplements. Here is Prest's nutrient advice in a nutshell:

* Omega-3 Fatty Acid intake can be lower in vegetarians. Getting plenty of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts to omega-3s can help. ALA is found in flax and chia seeds, canola oil, and hemp.

* Iron is usually plentiful in well-balanced vegetarian diets. However, iron from animal foods is better absorbed than iron from plant sources. Over time, the body can adapt to better absorb iron from plant sources.

* Vitamin [B.sub.12] is not a component of any plant food. Fermented foods and unfortified nutritional yeast are not enough to supplement a diet deficient in [B.sub.12]. Fortified foods and/or supplements are needed.

* Iodine can be low in vegetarian diets if iodine-rich foods like dairy products, iodized salt, or sea vegetables are not included.

* Calcium intake usually meets the needs of lactoovo vegetarians. However, calcium needs may not be met among all vegetarians. While there are plant foods that are good sources of calcium, some, like spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard are also high in oxalate, which decreases calcium absorption. Tofu made with a calcium salt and fortified plant milks are good sources of calcium.

* Vitamin D status depends on exposure to sunlight and consumption of vitamin-D fortified foods and supplements. Some vegetarians and vegans have low vitamin D levels in their blood. Including vitamin-D fortified foods and drinks and supplements may be needed.

Challenges to Vegetarianism. While research shows that vegetarian diets offer a bevy of health benefits, adopting a vegetarian diet and sticking with it is not always easy, especially if you decide to go vegan or raw vegan. If the whole family isn't on board, that makes it hard to prepare a meal that suits everyone at the table. Holidays and dining out may present challenges, although there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants to choose from now. While some people may decide to switch to a vegetarian diet because of someone close to them who has done the same, dietitian Prest says, "Some find the challenge comes from friends or family members who view this type of diet unfavorably."

Resources. If you're interested in eating the vegetarian way, but don't know how or where to start, Prest recommends consulting with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you to get it right. In the meantime, here are a few resources to bring you up to speed on vegetarian diets.





--Densie Webb, PhD, RD

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