Vegetarianism - A Healthy Choice?

According the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada's new position statement on vegetarianism, appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

Can you eat meat and still be a vegetarian? No. Here are the various levels of vegetarianism defined:

A vegetarian does not eat meat, fish, or fowl or products containing these foods. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats a diet based on grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds nuts, dairy products, but excludes meat, fish, and fowl. A lacto-vegetarian: includes dairy, but excludes eggs in addition to meat, fish and fowl. A vegan is a total vegetarian: excluding dairy and ALL other animal products (even honey, gelatin capsules used in vitamins etc) A vegetarian diet offers a number of benefits, including: lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein and higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, folate and antioxidants such as vitamin C and E. There is growing interest and appreciation for plant-based diets and the number of vegetarians in the United States and Canada is expected to increase over the next decade. The vegetarian based diet is also supported by many other leading national organizations. The American Heart Association recommends choosing a balanced diet with an emphasis on vegetables, grains, and fruits and the American Cancer Society recommends choosing most food from plant based sources.

Nutrient concerns

While it may take some focus for a vegetarian, protein requirements can be satisfied with the use of beans and soy products in place of other protein sources. Beans in soups and salads and products such as veggie burgers, soy milk and cheeses can make it easier for vegetarians to fulfill their requirements.

Some people worry about iron intake when considering a vegetarian diet but past studies indicate that the incidence of iron deficiency anemia among vegetarians is similar to that of non-vegetarians because Vitamin C and other organic acids found in fruits and vegetables can actually enhance iron absorption.

Other nutrients a poorly planned vegetarian diet may fall short in are B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids. By carefully considering choices as well as food preparation techniques, low intakes can be avoided.

The benefits of vegetarianism

Vegetarians are less likely to be obese, have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers. In addition, past research shows that diets high in antioxidants (such as is common with a vegetarian diet) have been found to protect cognitive function, thereby lowering the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's.

The Bottom line:

With careful planning, a vegetarian diet is not only beneficial, but has numerous health benefits. Try it. You'll like it.

Vegetarian web resource:

Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/etext/000058.htm, Loma Linda University Vegetarian Nutrition & Health Letter http://www.llu.edu/llu/vegetarian/vegnews.htm VegRD: http://vegrd.vegan.com/

Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2003;103:748-765.
Nanci S. Guest is a certified personal trainer & nutritionist, and is completing her Master of Science degree in nutrition this June. She owns "Power Play: Nutrition, Fitness, Performance" in Vancouver, BC, and for the past 8 years she has been providing individuals, sports teams & the community with nutritional consulting & personal training services, as well as research services, seminars and article writing for local & national publications.

Her specialization is sports nutrition, catering to a variety of athletes of all levels. Some of her elite athletic clientele include members of the Vancouver Canucks, the Vancouver Giants & the BC Lions, the Canadian National Freestyle Ski Team, Iron Man participants, athletic teams from BC high schools and universities, and a variety of other provincial and national team members.

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