Vegetarianism is the practice of following a diet deficient in meat, poultry, seafood and animal products. In some cases vegetarians may add eggs, milk and even seafood to their diets. In the last decades there is a general trend towards adopting this kind of lifestyle.
There are plenty of benefits in following a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians usually consume increased quantities of antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins C and E which contain anti-cancer and anti-aging properties. Also, vegetarians consume lots of fiber which is responsible for the balance of blood sugar levels and blood lipids and at the same time it promotes the health of the gastrointestinal track. People who adopt vegetarianism usually have good lipid levels (cholesterol, triglycerides) and low body weight with a reduced risk of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Although vegetarianism offers many health benefits, strict vegetarians (vegans) may be deficient in nutrients such as protein, iron, B complex vitamins and calcium.
Protein found in animal products is considered biologically complete as it provides all the amino acids that contribute towards the make of protein. On the contrary, protein found in plants, with the exception of soy protein, is often deficient in certain amino acids and not absorbed by the body as it should. Legumes are a good source of protein but are lacking some amino acids that can be found in forms of carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, pasta and nuts. In order for the body to be provided with complete protein the combination of legumes and carbohydrates it’s highly recommended. Good combinations of such foods are lentils with rice, vegetables with pasta, chick peas with potatoes etc.
Iron is absorbed easier by the body when it originates from animal products rather than plants. Food sources rich in iron that come from plants are dried fruits, breakfast cereals, nuts, dark green vegetables (i.e spinach) and seeds. To increase iron absorption by the body, vitamin C should be added to the diet. For example, meals should be accompanied by a glass of orange juice.
A vegetarian diet may also be deficient in B complex vitamins such as B12 and folic acid. Both vitamins are related to the healthy development of red blood cells. Good sources of folic acid are dark green leafy vegetables, oranges, legumes, bananas, etc. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products and it is less common to trace it in plants, with the exception of soy, therefore vegetarians may need to take supplements to maintain good health.
Last, vegans (= vegetarians who do not consume dairy products or seafood products like salmon and sardines) may have low levels of calcium in their body. Vegetarian sources of calcium are almonds, sesame, tofu (soybean products), dried figs and broccoli.
Yiannis Kerimis MSc RD (USA)