In general, a well-planned holistic vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice for individuals throughout their life. Individualised nutrition plans that reflect preferences and lifestyle requirements are important to ensure nutritional needs are met.
Being or becoming a vegetarian or vegan isn’t a clear-cut or unambiguous decision, where everyone is exactly the same. Meat eaters are not identical, some may not eat red meat, and others may not like the taste of chicken. It is a matter of personal preference or conscience. Common reasons for choosing to be a vegetarian or vegan include cultural, health, ethical, environment, taste preferences, and/or parental influences.
There are variation of vegetarianism and veganism including:
Lacto Vegetarian: includes the consumption of vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and dairy products. Meat, fish, poultry and eggs are excluded.
Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: includes consumption of vegetables, fruit, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy products. With exclusions of meat, fish and poultry.
Pescatarian: (semi-vegetarian) include the consumption of vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, dairy products, eggs and fish with meat and poultry being excluded.
Vegan: includes the consumption of vegetables, fruit, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), grains, nuts and seeds. With the exclusion of meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs and other animal products.
Fruitarian: includes consumption of fruit, foods botanically classified as fruit (tomato, avocado), nuts and seeds. With the exclusions of meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, vegetables (including legumes), grains, and eggs.
Some individuals choose to become vegetarian for the health benefits. While it is possible for vegetarians to eat unhealthier foods such as foods made with trans fats, sugar and salt, on the large scale vegetarians generally consume a nutritious diet. A Canadian study identifying increased fibre intake, reduced saturated fat intake, and chronic disease prevention as the main benefits associated with a vegetarian diet.
What are the health benefits?
Cancer: Vegetarian diets may increase the consumption of nutrients and dietary components reducing the risk of cancer including vegetables, fruit, antioxidants, good fats, fibre and lower in dietary substances associated with increased risk such as saturated fat.
Cardiovascular Disease: Food choices such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, lentils and legumes in combination with other lifestyle factors may have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease. A vegetarian diet may include higher amounts of these foods, modifying several risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease including blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight. Several large studies have found an associated between vegetarianism and lower rates of mortality from ischemic heart disease.
Diabetes: A variety of studies suggest the vegetarian diet is related to a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The beneficial effects are not attributed to decreased body weight, but to the prospective metabolic effect of several food components, notably wholegrains, soy, vegetables, legumes and the limited intake of other foods such as processed meats.
Overweight and Obesity: Across the varying types of vegetarian diets have an associated lower BMI than meat eaters.
Cultural: In Hinduism and Buddhism vegetarianism is advocated for in scriptures, whereas Jainism vegetarianism is mandatory for everyone. Comparatively, within Islam meat is praised and considered to be a pleasure, and in Christianity vegetarianism and meat-eaters both find support.
Others choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to protect animals and support the unnecessary slaughtering of animals. Vegetarians may also object to the underlying production of meat, voice concerns about animal welfare and animal rights. In addition, not wanting animal products to be exploited, such as clothing.
There are several indications for vegetarian/vegan diets to positively impacting the environment. The belief is centred on the indication that animal production, particularly intense farming is environmentally unsustainable. Including concerns for pollution and use of land and fossil fuels. The unsustainability is associated with the constantly increasing population and the requirement to increase meat production in order to support the nation. Farming practices are certainly evolving to address these concerns.
Nutrients at risk for vegetarians
As above, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice for individuals. However, there are nutrients that are at a higher risk for being low or deficient amongst vegetarians and vegans. These include iron, vitamin B12, zinc, iodine and vitamin D.
Iron: a mineral in the blood that is required to carry oxygen around the blood. Without enough iron, you can become fatigues, look pale and irritable. Vegetarians, especially young children, pregnant and pre-menopausal women and some athletes have a higher risk for iron deficiency. Food contains two types of iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in meat, seafood and poultry and absorption rates equal approximately 25-30% of the haem iron consumed. Non-haem iron which makes up to 90% of the iron consumed is found in both plants and meat with absorption rates closer to 15%.
For vegetarians, it is important to incorporate non-haem iron foods including: dried peas, beans, lentils, oatmeal, iron-fortified pasta and cereals, tofu, tempeh, spinach, asparagus, beets, beet and turnip greens. As sources of haem iron are excluded, the requirement for iron increases by 1.8 times the recommendation. You can increase absorption by eating non-haem iron with vitamin C rich foods such as oranges, grapefruits, pineapple, kiwi fruit, papayas, strawberries, mangoes, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, snow peas, cauliflower and kale. Drinking coffee or tea during or after a meal can decrease the amount of non-haem iron absorbed, in addition to concurrent intakes of calcium and other minerals.
Vitamin B12: is required to form DNA, make healthy blood cells and keep nerves working properly. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods and fortified foods. Depending on the vegetarian, generally animal products are avoided, and will need meat alternatives, such as soy products fortified with vitamin B12.
Zinc: is found in every part of our body and has a wide range of functions including: growth and development, reproduction, vitamin A metabolism, night vision, appetite, taste sensation, strong immune system, healthy skin, wound healing and hormone interactions. For vegetarian diets, the bioavailability of zinc in plant foods tends to be lower than in animal foods and higher in phytic acid (unrefined grains, legumes, nuts and seeds). Phytic acid binds to zinc and inhibits its absorption in the body.
It is important to incorporate dietary zinc, found in legumes, wholegrain breads and cereals, brown rice, soy (tofu and tempeh), nuts, seeds, eggs, cheese and zinc fortified foods. To aid absorption, you can include vitamin C containing foods (as mentioned above) and consume products that contain yeast (breads). Also avoiding excessive intake of unprocessed wheat bran (high in phytic acid).
Iodine: is an essential nutrient required for the production of thyroid hormones. These hormones are crucial for normal growth, and physical and mental development. Iodine is only required in small amounts, however, the body cannot store large amounts and a regular intake is necessary.
For vegetarians, iodine content in plant foods is lower compared to animal foods secondary to the low or variable iodine concentration in soil. To ensure adequate intake, vegetarians and vegans are encouraged to use iodised salt or include sea vegetables such as nori on a regular basis. Kelp is not a recommended iodine sources because of the variability in iodine concentration and has been documented as a toxicity source.
Vitamin D: plays an important role in bone health. Vitamin D strengths bones by increase the amount of calcium absorbed into them. It is also important for maintaining the immune system, healthy skin and muscle strength. There are two sources of Vitamin D:
Sun exposure is the main source of vitamin D where the nutrient is produced in the skin from UV rays. The amount of vitamin D produced depends on: the time of day, season, latitude, skin pigmentation, use of sunscreen, amount of skin exposed, length of time exposed and age. Most people are able to get adequate vitamin D through skin exposure.
Dietary sources also contain vitamin D. The only vegetarian foods containing vitamin D are eggs (small amounts), vitamin D mushrooms and fortified foods (fresh and powdered milk, margarines and limited soy milks, yoghurt and cheese).
Vegetarians are generally unable to meet vitamin D requirements through dietary means alone and sufficient sun exposure is required.
Any diet that has a strong plant based focus with minimal intake of overly processed foods is likely to see significant long term health benefits. Its little wonder that the vegan Seventh Day Adventists in California, are one of the longest lived populations on the planet, despite living in the USA where rates of chronic disease are exploding. With the right approach a vegetarian diet can meet all nutrition requirements and provide the foundation for longevity.