Vegetarianism is chosen for various reasons, including religion, health, environment, economics, ethics or simple preference. Consequently, different people follow different forms of vegetarianism.
For instance, a true vegetarian excludes meat, chicken and fish from his meal and a lacto-ovo vegetarian will exclude fish, meat and poultry but will add dairy products and eggs to his meal. On the other hand, a lacto vegetarian will eat dairy products but not eggs and an ovo vegetarian will eat eggs but no dairy products. However, veganism, the stricter form of vegetarianism will exclude all dairy and animal products, eggs, honey and gelatin from meals.
Although some are apprehensive about the nutritional risk of a vegetarian diet, the fact is that vegetables are full of vitamins, mostly vitamins A, B, C and K, fibers and minerals which are all vital for a healthy diet. The more vegetables we eat the more diseases are ward off. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) affirms that many nutritional benefits are present in a vegetarian diet ranging from a decrease in saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein to an increase in carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants like vitamin C and E and as well as pytochemicals.
Usually a vegetarian diet is believed to counter illnesses linked with an unbalanced non-veg diet such as cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer and heart disease among others. But the contradiction is that an unbalanced pure vegetarian diet can also lead to same maladies as non-veg diet, due to over consumption of high-calorie convenience vegetarian foods or ‘vegetarian’ fast-food that causes weight gain same like a meat-based food.
It is common belief that there are certain nutrients missing in a vegetarian diet; nowadays with a proper planning and adequate knowledge about vegetables and their nutritional values, one can easily meet his dietary needs for optimum results.
For instance, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, legumes and nuts contain both the essential and nonessential amino acid. To supplement the protein requirement of the body, addition of tofu and soy protein can be considered as equivalent to protein from animal source.
Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal based products like milk, eggs, fish, meat, chicken and so on. To compensate this deficiency in vegetarian diets, one can eat nutritional yeast like marmite or eat sea plants based food like spirulina, seaweeds among others. A multivitamin supplement which contains B complex is also helpful.
The pure vegetarians can consider soya, turnip, broccoli, collard greens, Chinese greens (bok choy), ragi and so on in their vegetarian diets to acquire calcium.
The richest source of iron is found in red meat, egg yolk and liver. So, eventually the intake of iron is low in vegetarians and to compensate this deficiency it is advisable to consume lots of beans and spinach as well as dried fruits and brewer’s yeast. As vitamin C adds to iron absorption, it is recommended to consume lots of citrus fruits.
Generally there are no convenient sources of Vitamin D for vegetarians. However, exposure to sunlight or soy milk fortified with vitamin D can provide a little source of the said vitamin.
So, the key to a healthy vegetarian diet is a careful planning to guarantee a balance and nutritional sufficiency of the right kind of plant foods and meat substitutes.