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Vegetarian diet: How to get the best nutrition
A well-planned vegetarian diet is a healthy way to meet your nutritional needs. Find out what you need to know about a plant-based diet.
By Mayo Clinic staff
You may follow a vegetarian diet for cultural, religious or ethical reasons. Or you may eat a vegetarian diet to stay healthy and prevent health problems, such as cardiovascular disease. Whatever your reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet, this guide will help you make smart choices to ensure that you meet your daily nutritional needs.
Indeed, a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breast-feeding women. The key is to be aware of your nutritional needs so that you plan a diet that meets them. If you aren't sure how to create a vegetarian diet that's right for you, talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian.
What is a vegetarian diet?
Some people follow a "vegetarian" diet, but there's no single vegetarian eating pattern. The vegan or total vegetarian diet includes only foods from plants: fruits, vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas), grains, seeds and nuts. The lactovegetarian diet includes plant foods plus cheese and other dairy products. The ovo-lactovegetarian (or lacto-ovovegetarian) diet also includes eggs. Semi-vegetarians don't eat red meat but include chicken and fish with plant foods, dairy products and eggs.
Are vegetarian diets healthful?
Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.
Vegetarian diets can be healthful and nutritionally sound if they’re carefully planned to include essential nutrients. However, a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if it contains too many calories and/or saturated fat and not enough important nutrients.
What are the nutrients to consider in a vegetarian diet?
Protein: You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.
Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds and nuts all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids. You don't need to consciously combine these foods ("complementary proteins") within a given meal.
Soy protein has been shown to be equal to proteins of animal origin. It can be your sole protein source if you choose.
Iron: Vegetarians may have a greater risk of iron deficiency than nonvegetarians. The richest sources of iron are red meat, liver and egg yolk -- all high in cholesterol. However, dried beans, spinach, enriched products, brewer's yeast and dried fruits are all good plant sources of iron.
Vitamin B-12: This comes naturally only from animal sources. Vegans need a reliable source of vitamin B-12. It can be found in some fortified (not enriched) breakfast cereals, fortified soy beverages, some brands of nutritional (brewer's) yeast and other foods (check the labels), as well as vitamin supplements.
Vitamin D: Vegans should have a reliable source of vitamin D. Vegans who don’t get much sunlight may need a supplement.
Calcium: Studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than nonvegetarians do. Vegetable greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli, and some legumes and soybean products, are good sources of calcium from plants.
Zinc: Zinc is needed for growth and development. Good plant sources include grains, nuts and legumes. Shellfish are an excellent source of zinc. Take care to select supplements containing no more than 15-18 mg zinc. Supplements containing 50 mg or more may lower HDL ("good") cholesterol in some people.
What meal plans are recommended?
Any type of vegetarian diet should include a wide variety of foods and enough calories to meet your energy needs.
Keep your intake of sweets and fatty foods to a minimum. These foods are low in nutrients and high in calories.
Choose whole or unrefined grain products when possible, or use fortified or enriched cereal products.
Use a variety of fruits and vegetables, including foods that are good sources of vitamins A and C.
If you use milk or dairy products, choose fat-free/nonfat and low-fat varieties.
Eggs are high in cholesterol (213 mg per yolk), so monitor your use of them. Limit your cholesterol intake to no more than 300 mg per day.
Even if you never plan to become a vegetarian, it would be good for your overall health as well as the rest of the animal kingdom (remember everything is connected), if you cut down on eating meat and fish and start eating more vegetables at every meal. The benefits are numerous; the main ones are that you will taste a great variety of new flavors, experience the body lighter and full of energy and most important- enjoy peace of mind.
Start by trying meatless foods that you already eat- for instance, spaghetti with tomato sauce, minestrone, black bean, tomato and vegetable soups, salads, fruits and whole grain breads. You can replace the beef in a burrito with beans or grilled vegetables. While on the road, you can try rice and beans at any Cuban restaurant, spinach ravioli at any Italian restaurant, falafel with hummus and Greek salad at any Mediterranean restaurant...the list is endless. Explore, create and have fun expanding on your menu! Do research, consult a vegetarian nutritionist, surf the net for vegetarian sites...and make some gradual changes for the good of everyone! Check our "menu" page for some suggestions. To learn more about being vegan, recipes, facts and answers to many of your questions go to www.goveg.com.
Diet and Cancer Research
Click here to read an article about Cancer Facts - Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk
FAQ: Alcohol and Your Health
Experts answer questions about the impact of drinking on cancer risk, heart health, and more.
Is there a truly safe level of drinking alcohol?
Not a universally safe level, experts agree. "A safe level for one person may not be for another," Gapstur says.
"Nothing is absolutely safe for everybody," Klatsky says. But, he adds, "I think there is a sensible level of drinking.'' Sensible levels, though, must be tailored to the individual, Klatsky says.
And sensible doesn't mean "saving up'' whatever number of drinks is deemed reasonable per week and drinking them all at once, Gapstur says. Moderate doesn't mean ''save it up, put it in the bank," she says, referring to people who don't drink all week, then have multiple drinks at a single sitting on the weekends. That's binge drinking, and considered unhealthy.
Is it better, then, to drink only a little every day or moderately just a few times a week? Experts don't agree entirely. Rogg, for instance, advises his patients not drink more than two or three times a week. To be on the safe side, he suggests a glass of wine or other alcohol maybe twice a week.
But Klatsky says a healthier pattern for many people is to have a small amount nearly every day.
Dietary Guidelines for Yoga
You don't have to follow any certain type of diet to practice yoga, however the traditional yogi diet is vegan, or vegetarian. Foods that are encouraged are fruits, vegetables, rice, grains, milk and ghee (clarified butter). Yogis classify food as either tamasic, sattvic, or rajasic. Sattvic foods are pure and health promoting, rajasic foods are stimulating, and tamasic foods are impure.
Sattvic foods are pure, tasteful, health promoting and energizing. Most serious yoga practitioners make sattvic foods the mainstay of their diet. Food should be organically grown, if possible, and free of preservatives and additives. Sattvic foods include:
Nuts and seeds
Dried peas, lentils and beans
Organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables
Milk, butter and clarified butter (ghee).
Rajasic - These are spicy, sour, pungent and stimulating foods. They include:
Beverages containing caffeine such as tea, coffee, and colas.
Rajasic foods make people physically more active, but over the long term too many rajasic foods may lead to overstimulation and restlessness.
Tamasic - These are spoiled, tasteless or impure foods. Foods that are factory farmed or highly processed would be considered tamasic. Examples of tamasic foods include: