Vegetarian diets focus on fruits, vegetables, grains and soy as the primary food base. This diet does not contain, or severely limits consumption of animal products including meat, fish and poultry. There are many reasons people choose to become a vegetarian other than weight loss, including for religious purposes, ecological concerns, or compassion for animals.
There are three basic types of vegetarians:
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: these vegetarians refrain from eating red meat, poultry and fish, but continue to eat eggs, milk and milk products like cheese and yogurt as a part of their plant based diet.
Lacto-vegetarians: these vegetarians are similar to the lacto-ovo group in that they eat milk and milk products as a part of their plant based diet, but they do not consume eggs, meat, poultry and fish.
Vegans: these vegetarians eat plant based foods exclusively. Vegans do not eat any animal based foods including dairy products or eggs, while many also eliminate use of all other animal products such as leather, wool and silk from their lifestyle.
A vegetarian diet can have many health benefits including lower cholesterol levels, less heart disease, a lower risk of cancer, low blood pressure, decreased weight and strong bones. This is due to the low consumption of fat, and the high consumption of fiber and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E.
There is the general idea that because vegetarians do not eat animal products they might not get enough protein or B vitamins found in meat, poultry and fish. However eating a large variety of vegetable proteins throughout the day can meet the body’s requirements. Fortified cereals and soy products are also good sources of B vitamins in the vegetarian diet.
According to the American Dietetic Association a vegetarian meal plan should include:
* A variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and if desired, dairy products and eggs.
* Whole, unrefined foods while minimizing intake of highly sweetened, fatty, and heavily refined foods.
* If animal foods such as dairy products and eggs are used, choose lower-fat versions of these foods. Cheeses and other high-fat dairy foods and eggs should be limited in the diet because of their saturated fat content, and because their frequent use displaces plant foods in some vegetarian diets.
* Vegans should include a regular source of vitamin B-12 in their diets along with a source of vitamin D if sun exposure is limited.
* Do not restrict dietary fat in children younger than 2 years. For older children, include some foods higher in unsaturated fats (eg, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, avocado, and vegetable oils) to help meet nutrient and energy needs.
* Solely breast-fed infants should have supplements of iron after the age of 4 to 6 months and, if sun exposure is limited, a source of vitamin D. Breast-fed vegan infants should have vitamin B-12 supplements if the mother's diet is not fortified.
(Source: Messina V.K., Burke, K. I., “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, November 1997, Volume 97, Number 11.)