Food and Nutrition
Vegetarian Diet

​​Overview:

Vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet. A vegetarian person abstains from animal-derived products.

Names:
Vegetarian diet, vegetarianism

Levels of vegetarianism:
  • Vegan diet: Vegans abstain from meat, poultry, fish and all animal derived products (e.g. eggs, dairy products and gelatin).
  • Vegetarian diet: Vegetarians are so called, even though they consume some animal-derived products. They are of several types, including:
    • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians: They abstain from fish, poultry and meat, but consume eggs and dairy products.
    • Lacto-vegetarians: They abstain from fish, poultry, meat and eggs, but consume dairy products.
    • Ovo-vegetarians: They abstain from fish, poultry, meat and dairy products, but consume eggs.
    • Semi-vegetarians: They consume all foods, including fish and poultry, but abstain from red meat.

Vegetarian diet: what for?
  • Health benefits
  • Religious beliefs
  • Environmental concerns, and animal rights
  • Financial reasons (e.g. inability to afford for meat)

Pros of vegetarianism:
Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians consume less saturated fat and cholesterol, and get sufficient vitamins, minerals and fiber. As a result, they can reap a multitude of health benefits, including:
  • Less harmful cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Weight loss
These benefits reduce the risk of chronic diseases. However, these benefits may not be associated with the vegetarian diet per se, but with the healthy lifestyle usually followed by vegetarians (e.g. exercise and non-smoking). Some studies have concluded that vegetarians are less likely to suffer from some diseases, such as:
  • Heart diseases
  • Cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes

Cons of vegetarianism:
There are vegetarianism-related concerns regarding the intake of the following nutrients:
  • Protein: Lacto- and ovo-vegetarians often get sufficient protein intake from dairy products and/or eggs. Other vegetarian groups are encouraged to diversify the protein sources, to make up for the lack of animal protein.  
  • Vitamin B12: Lacto- and ovo-vegetarians often get sufficient intake of Vitamin B12, found in animal products only. Other vegetarian groups are encouraged to consume foods supported with Vitamin B12, or dietary supplements.
  • Iron: Vitamin C increases the absorption of plant-based iron, while the phytic acid reduces it. The phytic acid is found in whole-grain foods (e.g. beans, lentils, nuts, etc.)
  • Zinc: The phytic acid (found in whole grains such as beans, lentils, nuts, etc.) affects the absorption of zinc as well.
  • Omega-3: Among the sources of omega-3 are: flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, etc.

Vegetarian diet and bone health:
Some women prefer to avoid vegetarian diets, especially those that eliminate dairy products, in fear of osteoporosis. In reality, though, some plant-based foods (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, etc.) contain calcium. Besides, some fruits and vegetables reduce the rate of calcium elimination through urine. Still, some vegetarians (especially vegans) may not get an adequate intake of Vitamin D and Vitamin K, which are necessary for bone health. Although Vitamin K is found in some leafy vegetables, they will still need to get more of it through Vitamin K-supported foods (e.g. soymilk, etc), in addition to Vitamin D supplements.

Dietary supplements:
A person who follows a well-planned vegetarian diet will get an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, vegetarians are recommended to take vitamin supplements, to ensure getting sufficient proteins. This is particularly true for children, since vitamins are essential for growth. Ask your doctor, or a nutritionist, to determine what supplements are best suited for you.

Children and vegetarian diet:
Children can follow a vegetarian diet; but they can’t do so without the help of adults. Children need help to ensure get all the nutritional needs of their body development. They need also to make up for the nutrients typically found in animal sources, (e.g. proteins, iron, etc.)

Vegetarian diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should follow a balanced, diversified and healthy diet, to maintain their health as well as the health and sound growth of their babies. That is why a diverse and balanced diet is crucial during pregnancy. A vegetarian pregnant woman should pay close attention to getting an adequate intake of iron and Vitamin B12, profusely found in meat and fish, as well as Vitamin D.

Guidelines for vegetarians:
  • Diversify your diet.
  • Get at least five meals of diverse fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Make sure to consume foods rich in fiber, to improve digestion and avoid constipation.
  • Include carbohydrates (in such foods as potatoes, rice, macaroni, etc) in your meals. And as much as possible, choose whole-grain products.
  • Eat starchy foods (e.g. rice, sweet potatoes, macaroni, etc.) on a daily basis—they are a good source of energy, and are rich in many nutrients.
  • It is advisable to consume dairy products or milk substitutes (e.g. soymilk, oat milk, etc), since they contain calcium.
  • Make sure to consume plant-based protein, typically found in grains, legumes, peas, lentils, and nuts).
  • Make sure to consume unsaturated fat (e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, etc), and avoid saturated fat (e.g. butter, margarine, etc), making sure to limit the consumption of fat.
  • Limit the consumption of fatty, salty and sweet foods (e.g. whipped cream, chocolate, cookies, iced foods and beverages, cakes, etc)—the nutritional value of those foods is poor.

FAQ:
I’m a vegetarian and an athlete. Do I need to follow a special diet?
Vegetarian athletes usually face two obsessions: 
  • First: Plant-based meals are low-calorie, and athletes need to increase the intake of calories based on the duration and intensity.
  • Second: Vegetarian diets and plant-based meals often lack some of the essential nutrients found in animal sources (e.g. protein, iron, calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, Zinc, and omega-3 fat). Those nutrients are instrumental for supporting muscles, maintaining the bone mass, and transferring oxygen. Therefore, vegetarian athletes are advised to get a sufficient intake of the foods that would make up for the deficiency of those nutrients.
  • They are encouraged to have light and balanced meals before and during workouts.
  • Muscle-building takes place after exercise, as the body consumes 10g of protein source. Therefore, vegetarian athletes should eat quinoa, or a food containing soybeans two hours after exercise, from which to get protein.
 


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