Healthy eating for vegetarians
One doesn't become a vegetarian without a reason. One of the main goals of vegetarianism is to maintain good health. Though fruits and vegetables are an interesting alternative, it is essential that you eat balanced meals.
You have opted for a vegetarian diet or are perhaps thinking of doing so? Why not, as long as you're willing to accept a couple of rules. Find out about the hidden virtues of a veggie diet and read our advice on the pitfalls to avoid.
Is vegetarianism healthy?
The government keeps reminding you that eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health. So, you might want to know whether being a vegetarian really will keep the doctor away.
There have been many studies on this topic, suggesting that this lifestyle might well be beneficial to the heart. Vegetarian advocates are less susceptible to high blood pressure, heart attack and cardiovascular problems 1,2.
A vegetarian diet is also believed to lower risks of some types of cancer 3 , even though benefits in this regard are not yet entirely certain 4 and studies can't seem to get down to a definitive result. Diet is not always the only positive health factor, so beware of leaping to hasty conclusions, as vegetarians are generally also more particular as to what they eat, smoke less, exercise more and so on.
In other words, vegetarians tend to lead a healthier lifestyle all round 5. At any rate, being a vegetarian won't do you any harm, as long as you avoid deficiencies.
Looking for lost proteins
Among the deficiencies vegetarianism is most likely to induce is a lack of protein. These substances are indispensable to our bodies for muscle growth, hormone and enzyme production, among other things. Meat and fish are the chief sources of protein for most people.
Nutrition-savvy vegetarians will no doubt argue that there are such things as vegetal proteins and that they make up part of the deficiency associated with a meatless diet. Absolutely true, but it's worth noting that these proteins contain much fewer amino acids, which are essential protein constituents.
Fortunately, vegetarians can rely on certain substitutes, such as dairy products, cereals (bread, flour, pasta, semolina, rice etc.), eggs and pulses (white and red peas, split peas, flageolets, chickpeas etc.) in order to get the protein intake they need.
At least two of the above need to be included in every meal, in various assortments. The best option is to eat a cereal as well as a dairy product during each meal, with either an egg or a legume (lentils, beans...), complete with fruits and vegetables. If you still have doubts, you should seek advice from your nutritionist.
A cast-iron constitution
Another lurking danger for vegetarians is iron deficiency. Here again, meat, and more particularly red meat, is an important source of iron. While it's true that many vegetables also contain iron, the iron is far less bio-available, which means that the body has a harder time absorbing it.
If you're a strictly anti-meat vegetarian but are not averse to eating fish, you should be able to maintain a healthy amount of iron. If, however, you go the full vegan route and don't eat any seafood, you'll need to turn to pulses, eggs or milk if you want to avoid deficiencies. This can be tricky and you should by no means think twice about seeing your doctor if you feel out of sorts or experience chronic fatigue.
Last but not least, a little bit of physical activity, at least 30 minutes walking at a lively pace every day, is critical to staying fit, whether you're a vegetarian or not!
1 - Public Health Nutr, October, 2002; vol.5: p. 645-654.
2 - Am J Clin Nutr, September, 2003; vol. 78: p. 533S-538S.
3 - British Journal of Cancer, January, 2004; 90: p. 118-121.
4 - Am J Clin Nutr, September, 1999; vol. 70 : p. 516S-524S.
5 - Public Health Nutr, February, 2002; vol. 5: p. 29-36.
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