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Vegetarian Diets

November 2005
Vegetarian Diets

Dear Dr Harjee:

My family is vegetarian and I have often wondered if we are getting all the nutrients in the right proportions. We love and eat desi food prepared at home. Would you kindly shed some light on how we can stay healthy as vegetarians?

First of all there are many types of vegetarians, for example, those who avoid meats of any sort, i.e. red meat, poultry, and fish, and those who avoid eggs also.

? Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy, and eggs, and avoid all meats strictly.

? Lacto-vegetarians are identical to the lacto-ovo except they avoid eggs also.

? Vegans avoid all meats as well as any foods that call for dairy, eggs, or have any products related to animal processing.

? Macrobiotic diets are very restrictive, avoiding meats, dairy, eggs, tropical fruits, processed sweeteners, and certain vegetables of the nightshade family (e.g., potato, eggplant, pepper, tomato).

? Fruitarians will eat mostly fruits and only the vegetables that are botanically considered fruits, e.g., tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, etc. They eat generous amounts of nuts and seeds.

Keeping this in mind let us examine the benefits of a vegetarian diet:

? Low risk of colon cancer, constipation, and a condition called diverticular disease of the colon which is an aging process of the colon which may occur prematurely in non-vegetarian diets and in diets that use excessive processed foods.

? Lower risk of obesity.

? Lower risk of breast and prostate cancers.

? Lower risk of coronary disease and other forms of arterial clogging conditions such as strokes, gangrene of the limbs, and kidney failure.

? Lower risk of gallstones.

? Much lower risk of diabetes than for non-vegetarians.

The following are basic principles for a good diet:

? Incorporate adequate calories for the days' activity, for normal growth in babies and children, and for recuperation from illness, starvation, hardship, calamity, or fasting. Additional calories will lead to weight gain.

? Include whole grains or cereals, or, at least, fortified and enriched grains. Preferred here are daals, beans, legumes, and wild rice.

? Replace saturated and trans fats in your diet with mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These fats do not raise LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels and have health benefits when eaten in moderation. Sources of monounsaturated fats include olive and canola oils. Sources of polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils, and foods like nuts. Ghee is to be avoided completely and butter used sparingly. Soft margarines (liquid, tub, or spray) have lower trans fats and are substitutes for butter and ghee.

? Limit sweets, alcohol, and fatty foods that have little or no nutritional value but contribute to unnecessary weight gain.

? Include sources of vitamin B12 and vitamin D (see below).

You are very right in that through restriction and constraints of time in our society one may not be aware of the nutritional value of our finger-licking delicious desi food.

Keep in mind the following when serving vege meals:

? Zinc: A good planned meal will allow enough absorption of zinc if whole grains, cereals, mushrooms, peas, sea vegetables, beans, tofu, nuts, milk, cheeses, or wheat is included.

? Vitamin B12: Non-meat sources of B12 are soy, dairy, and eggs. Sea vegetables, tempeh, and spirulina must not be considered adequate, and supplements such as vitamins must be considered as well as fortified foods.

? Vitamin D: Vitamin D may be naturally synthesized from sunlight; however, smog, cloudy weather, age, sunscreens, and pigment will limit synthesis. Fortified foods such as breakfast foods, margarine, soymilk, rice milk, and cow's milk will meet daily needs. Other sources include eggs; cod-liver oil; and fatty fish such as sardines, herring, salmon, and tuna.

? Omega-3 fatty acids: The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are found mostly in fish and eggs but can be synthesized from alpha?linolenic acid. Good sources of the later are flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soybeans, soybean oil, tofu, and walnuts. Vegetarian DHA supplements made from micro-algae are also available.

? Calcium: Green vegetables such as broccoli, collards, kale, and turnip greens are good sources of calcium. Lacto-ovos have good calcium absorption but vegans have much lower intakes and must take supplements.

? Iron: Most vegetarians are not at any risk of iron deficiency and maintain good iron stores. Vitamin C enhances iron absorption while tea, caffeine, and certain spices may retard iron absorption. Supplements may be prudent with anticipation of childbirth, surgery, or other reasons for blood loss.

In our next article we will examine certain vegetarian sample menus to better answer your question.

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