H.Vegetarian Diet

Eating right for vegetarians

Eating right for vegetarians
Kavita Devgan / New Delhi June 05, 2010,

It is possible to have a fully balanced diet that is entirely vegetarian, if you work it right. All you need to do is eat smart to make your meals as complete as possible.
If you consider a meal of potatoes and rotis or rice and dal as staple vegetarian fare, then you could be getting seriously short-changed on some key nutrients. In such a diet, you will not be getting the required intake of protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids.

Plant foods offer incomplete protein as they tend to be deficient in one or other essential amino acids (protein is made of building blocks called amino acids and our body needs nine of these from food). But this problem can be managed easily by being careful about both the kind and amount of protein being eaten.
How to: 

1. Combine plant foods wisely to cover all essential amino acids. For example, legumes (cooked dried beans, dried peas, and lentils) are low in sulfur-containing amino acids (such as methionine), but they are high in another amino acid called lysine. Grains are just the opposite. So by eating both together or during the course of a day, you can get the benefits of both. Beans and rice, dal-chawal, khichri, pita bread with hummus (ground garbanzo beans and sesame seed paste) are good examples of complementary proteins.
2. Look for variety. Don’t stick to just the known sources like legumes and dairy — nuts for instance are an easy and tasty source of high-quality protein.

The best sources of iron tend to be non-vegetarian (liver, egg, sardines etc). Iron from plant foods (nonheme) is not absorbed as well as iron from meats (heme), so it is important for vegetarians to eat more iron-rich foods to meet their requirements. Vegetarian iron sources include beans, leafy green vegetables, banana, brown rice, sprouts, seeds (sesame, sunflower and pumpkin), mushrooms, and iron-fortified grain products.
How to:

  1. Try to pair iron-rich foods with a vitamin C source, as this helps improve the absorption of iron from the food (almost six-fold). So add some orange segments to your salad, make a tamarind-based curry with spinach, cook iron-rich chhole (chickpeas) with tomatoes, have beans with tomato sauce, or drink some orange juice with your bowl of iron-fortified cereal. Also try to eat lots of the foods that contain both iron and vitamin C: bok choy, broccoli and Swiss chard (doesn’t have a Hindi name but is usually available in veg shops these days — looks like spinach and potatoes).
  2. Have more dried fruits; snack on them when possible. Dried apricots, raisins, prunes, mangos, pineapple, figs, dates, cherries and cranberries are all good and easy sources of iron.
  3. Don’t combine coffee, tea, cocoa and calcium with iron-rich foods — they obstruct iron absorption. This means no tea or coffee with your spinach toast! Give it a decent interval. If you are having calcium supplements, have them at least an hour before or after an iron-rich meal.
Dairy products are an excellent source but vegetarians who do not consume milk or milk products (vegans — see box) need to get calcium from other sources. Try soy milk and orange juice fortified with calcium; other good sources include seeds (sunflower, sesame etc), nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews), fruits (banana, custard apple) and green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, turnip greens).
How to:
  1. Include tofu in your diet. Not only is this a rich source of calcium, the vitamin D in it helps in better absorption of the calcium too 
  2. Cooking greens or sprinkling them with a little lemon juice or vinegar makes the calcium more available to your body.

Zinc from plant foods is poorly absorbed, so it is important for vegetarians to get enough zinc. Good sources of zinc include leavened whole grains (such as whole-wheat bread), legumes (beans and lentils), soy foods and dairy products.
How to:
  1. Pumpkin seeds provide one of the most concentrated vegetarian food sources of zinc. Sprinkle some on your food.
  2. Sprinkle cashews in salads, or keep a bag of mixed nuts in your desk or backpack. They contain about twice as much iron and zinc as almost any other nu

For this, it is important to go strong on grains. Vitamin B12 (found mostly in foods from animal sources, such as milk, eggs, and meat) and B2 are often a bigger problem. So look for foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as fortified soy milk) or take a B12 supplement. Good sources of B12 (riboflavin) are whole grains, wheat germ, mushrooms, almonds and leafy green vegetables.
How to:
  1. Try nutritional yeast as it is a great vegetarian source of all B vitamins (and protein too). It’s great in smoothies or sprinkled over pasta.
  2. Different grains provide different nutrients, so it helps to vary the types you eat. Don’t just stick to making brown rice all the time (because you have heard it is healthy); it’s better to mix up the grains you eat. Try oats, red rice, ragi, barley, quinoa (this is a protein-rich cereal which is available now in health food shops easily — very healthy, it gives the benefits of a legume too), bajra etc.

Vegetarians who don’t get adequate sunlight and don’t consume enough milk or milk products may not get enough vitamin D.
How to:
  1. Soy milk is often fortified with vitamin D, as are some cereals. You can also check with your doctor about a supplement.
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids keep skin supple and prevent disease. Although fish is the best known source of this essential fatty acid, flax oil (sold both in liquid form and in capsules), flax seeds and walnuts are excellent sources too.
Vegans are stricter than the average vegetarian. Besides animal foods like meat and eggs they also eliminate from their diet foods which come from animals such as dairy products (so even milk, paneer and cheese are out) as well as processed foods containing these or other animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin; some even give up honey. This group should be extra careful about its calcium and vitamin B12 intake

Incorporate (and develop a taste for) seaweeds in your diet. These super foods — with names such as alaria, dulse, kelp, nori, spirulina and agar — are good sources of minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iodine, iron and chromium, as well as vitamins A, C, E and many of the Bs. So add them to the salads, sauté with vegetables or simply crumble them in soups (look for them in Korean and Japanese specialty shops).

Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet Include a Reduced Risk of Disease

Research has confirmed that a vegetarian diet, defined as one that is “plant-based” and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, leads to a reduced risk of disease, specifically cancer, heart disease, and obesity. This reduced risk leads to an improvement in overall health, especially when evaluated in conjunction with the diseases and conditions related to heart disease and obesity, whose symptoms are improved or even reversed with a vegetarian diet. However, the health benefits of a vegetarian diet are contingent upon the "well-planned" vegetarian diet, one that provides all nutrients in amounts that are required for health. As such, the health benefits of a "well-planned" vegetarian diet are numerous, and lead in an overall improvement in health and longevity.

Vegetarian Diets Reduce the Risk of Cancer
The most significant and studied health benefit of a vegetarian diet is a reduced risk of cancer. According to the article "Vegetarian Foods: Powerful for Health" from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians are a 40% less likely to develop cancer than non-vegetarians. This reduced risk is most evident in the rates of breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer. Notably, the risk of colon cancer is reduced by 300% for vegetarians, when compared to their non-vegetarian peers. While less impressive than the reduced risk for colon cancer, a vegetarian diet significantly reduces the risk for breast cancer and lung cancer, and has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer in general. This reduction in risk is directly related to the vegetarian diet. According to Johanna Dwyer in "Health Aspects of Vegetarian Diets" (1988) from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a vegetarian diet typically is lower in fat and animal protein, and higher in dietary fiber, both diet factors that lead to a reduced risk for cancer.

Heart Disease Risks are Significantly Reduced with a Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet has been linked to lower rates of heart disease; vegetarians have been found to have, on average, lower blood pressure and cholesterol than non-vegetarians. Additionally, mortality and morbidity from coronary artery disease is lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians. Beyond preventing the onset of heart disease, a vegetarian diet has also been shown to reduce the blood pressure and bad cholesterol level of individuals at risk for heart disease and slows the process of atherosclerosis, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. A vegetarian diet reduces the risks associated with heart disease, and can even reverse many of the factors associated with heart disease.

Vegetarian Diets lead to a Lower Rates of Obesity and Obesity-Related Diseases
According to Stephanie Clarke, R.D. and Willow Jarosh, R.D in the June 2010 Shape, "People who ate the most meat were about 27 percent more likely to be obese and 33 percent more likely to have abdominal obesity." Numerous studies, including one cited by Johanna Dwyer show that vegetarians are much leaner than non-vegetarians. Additionally, vegetarians, on average, have much lower BMIs than non-vegetarians. The reason for this reduced risk of obesity is directly related to the vegetarian diet; research shows that people who follow a vegetarian diet eat fewer calories and less fat than non-vegetarians.

The lower incidence of obesity attributed to vegetarian diets leads to numerous health benefits. These include a reduced risk for numerous diseases such as gallstones, gastrointestinal disease (including constipation, diverticulitis, and colon cancer), diabetes, kidney stones, and heart disease. According to Johanna Dwyer, lower obesity rates also contribute to reducing and sometimes eliminating the symptoms of arthritis, asthma, and diabetes. Lower obesity rates have also been linked to an increase in longevity and lower rates of mortality, especially mortality associated with IHC (Immunocytochemistry), as cited in a study in the 1999 Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Finally, in a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that non-vegetarians are 30% more likely to die of any cause over a ten-year period, when compared to their vegetarian peers. A vegetarian diet has a significant positive effect on overall health, especially reducing the risk of diseases and conditions related to obesity.

Health Benefits ascribed to "Well-Planned" Vegetarian Diets
The health benefits of a vegetarian diet are only ascribed to "well-planned" vegetarian diets. Just like a non-vegetarian diet can still be healthy, a poorly planned vegetarian diet, one that is too high in fat and sugar and does not meet nutrient needs, is unhealthy. The guidelines for a "well-planned" vegetarian diet are outlined in the Vegetarian Food Pyramid. Following a "well-planned" vegetarian diet has significant health benefits, reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and obesity, which improves overall health and longevity.

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