There is evidence that shows that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and some cancers. Unlike what many people believe, vegetarian diets can be nutritionally balanced with proper meal planning.
While there is no single vegetarian diet, vegetarian eating patterns usually fall into one of these groups:
1. Vegan – excludes all meat and animal products
2. Lacto Vegetarian – includes plant and dairy products
3. Lacto-ovo Vegetarian – includes plant, dairy products and eggs
4. Semi-vegetarian – excludes red meat, but may include poultry and fish, plant foods, dairy products and eggs
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Vegetarians can obtain all of the nutrients that they need by eating a variety of healthy food. This will ensure that they meet their nutritional requirements for good health. In order to maintain good health, vegetarians need to focus on including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12 into their diets.
A Few Functional Foods:
1. Protein – protein is essential for normal growth and maintenance of body tissues. Protein is also vital for breast feeding women. There are a variety of plant protein food options that are suitable for vegetarians. These protein sources include: whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, tofu and vegetables. These protein rich foods contain both essential and non-essential amino acids. Plant sources of protein can be eaten throughout the day and will provide an individual with all of the essential amino acids needed for good health. For lacto-ovo and semi vegetarians, dairy products and eggs are also good sources of protein.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids – these may help maintain good health by reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, reducing inflammation, and aiding with vision and cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish and eggs for semi-vegetarians. For more strict vegetarian diets, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soy.
3. Iron – is important for carrying oxygen through the body. A lack of iron can result in anemia. Iron that is found in animal sources is easier for the body to absorb. It is therefore difficult for strict vegetarians to obtain the required amount of iron for good health. Dark leafy greens are the best source of iron.
4. Calcium – is needed for healthy bones and teeth, blood clotting, and for muscle and nerve function. For vegetarians that include dairy products in their diet, consuming healthy food that contains calcium is not usually a problem. For those that exclude dairy, dark leafy greens are a good source of calcium as well as fortified juices and cereals.
5. Zinc – is essential for good health as it is involved in many biochemical reactions in the body and helps the immune system to function properly. Beans, fortified cereals, soy, legumes, whole grains and nuts are good sources of zinc.
6. Vitamin B12 – is needed for the formation of red blood cells and for proper nerve functioning. Deficiencies can result in irreversible nerve damage. It is important that vegetarians pay attention to this vitamin in order to maintain good health. Fortified foods are a source of vitamin B12 for vegans. Dairy products will provide vitamin B12 for other types of vegetarians. A vitamin B12 supplement may be beneficial if vitamin B12 cannot be obtained in adequate amounts from healthy food.
Remember to Consider These Functional Foods
If you’re a vegetarian, be sure to include a variety of healthy food that includes protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12 into your diet. Vegetarian diets have been shown to promote good health when diets are adequate. A little preparation for proper meal planning will ensure that your health remains optimal. If you have questions about meal planning, consult a dietician or nutritionist.