What is a vegetarian diet and what are the benefits for people who choose to adopt this way of eating? There are many reasons people choose to follow a vegetarian style of eating, including religious beliefs, thinking red meat is harmful to their health, or even a moral reason in regards to the animals’ right to live.
Individuals who follow vegetarian diets do not eat animal products including meat, chicken and fish. They do eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, dried beans and peas, grains, seeds and nuts, and sometimes dairy products and eggs. There is no single type of vegetarian diet, just differing degrees of vegetarianism. Vegans follow a strict diet of no animal meats or products. Lacto-vegetarians eat plant foods as well as dairy products, and lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plant foods as well as both dairy products and eggs.
There are many benefits for people who adopt a vegetarian diet, such as lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol (as red meats are extremely high in both), and a higher fibre content and complex carbohydrates through beans/lentils and vegetables. These people are beginning to adopt this way of eating to improve their overall diet and to help prevent chronic diseases (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gallstones).
There are concerns for some people who follow a vegetarian diet not getting enough of certain vital nutrients for their body. The main vitamin that vegetarians may become deficient in is vitamin B12. This vitamin is only found in animal products and therefore individuals who follow this type of eating may need to include a supplement in their diet. Sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians may include dairy products, eggs and foods (mainly cereals), that have been fortified with B12. There are some other minerals which some vegetarians may find themselves lacking: calcium, iron and zinc. There are many great non-meat sources of these minerals and a well-thought-out diet will ensure that your diet is never lacking in these minerals. Choosing foods such as iron-fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, whole wheat breads, peas, wheat germ, milk products and pumpkin seeds, calcium-fortified soymilk, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and orange juice, tofu and some dark-green leafy vegetables will allow you to have a range of these minerals in question.
In today’s society there is an abundance of options for vegetarians in our supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. A lot of nutritionists and health institutes recommend meat-free days to give your body a rest from eating and processing meats (also for the health impacts on our environment, and the cost of meat in comparison to non-meat meals). If you are deciding to change the way you eat and want to adopt a vegetarian diet, it is important to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains/beans, dairy products and eggs (if so desired), to ensure a well-balanced intake of all vitamins and minerals. There are many athletes who follow a vegetarian diet and with the right balance are able to obtain the best performance for their sport. Always ensure that you have done your research about what you are eating, and ask a qualified health professional (dietician or nutritionist) for advice and guidance in this area.