A strict vegetarian diet consists solely of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and beans. However, there are several variations of this fundamental principle.

Ovo-Lacto vegetarians also eat eggs and dairy products. Pescatarians include fish and seafood into their meals.

A strict vegetarian that excludes all animal products is also referred to as a vegan. Vegans might go one step further and consume mainly uncooked and unprocessed, “raw foods.”

The American Dietetic Association believes that well-planned vegetarian diets are healthy, nutritionally sound, provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of diseases, and are suitable for individuals at all stages of the life cycle.

Why do people use vegetarian diets?

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Although many vegetarians eschew animal products due to environmental and ethical beliefs, it’s the numerous health benefits that grab the attention of the medical fraternity and health authorities. It’s been estimated that as many as 70 percent of all diseases are related to diet.

Non-vegetarian diets, if not properly managed, can be high in saturated fats and processed foods and low in essential nutrients and complex carbohydrates. This deadly combination leads to higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and even death.

In contrast, people who switch to a low-fat, vegetarian diet tend to experience significant weight loss and can keep that weight off, leading to subsequent improvement in health.

Studies carried out by the Loma Linda University of Public Health, and George Washington University School of Medicine, have found vegetarian diets lead to a significant reduction in the incidence of diabetes and assist with management of the disease.

Numerous studies have found that eating a vegetarian diet, which is full of antioxidants, fibre, Vitamins C and E, magnesium, unsaturated fats and a multitude of phytochemicals, correlates with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, with a commensurate decrease in heart disease.

Common Mistakes of Vegetarians

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Despite it’s many health benefits, there are several pitfalls to avoid when adopting a vegetarian diet.

When you cut out all animal products, it’s vital to ensure that you still get a full range of essential nutrients. A lack of iron and Vitamin B12 are two of the most common deficiencies. It’s also important to consume enough essential fatty acids, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamin D.

Vegetarians who don’t eat a balance of proteins, the right carbs, and good and bad fats can end up eating unhealthy meals, just like any non-vegetarian with a poor diet.

Eating too many refined and processed foods that contain little to no nutritional value is also a problem. Processed tofu, for example, can be high in estrogen and cause hormonal imbalances if eaten in excess. Organic tofu or tempeh are far healthier alternatives.

Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats and whole grain bread, rice and pasta are healthier options than their white alternatives.

Processed cheese is high in saturated fats and can inflame the digestive system if too much is consumed. Some vegetarian hot dogs, hamburger and bacon substitutes are full of processed soy, sugar and artificial flavours. Black beans, pinto beans, lentils and chickpeas are better options because they contain high-quality, plant-based proteins without the toxic additives.

It is recommended that you speak to a professional to assess your own specific dietary needs. Advice from a qualified dietician or medical practitioner can assist in helping get the balance right. In addition to assessing an individual’s nutritional requirements, they can help educate and advise on suitable sources of specific nutrients, what foods to purchase, how to prepare them and specific dietary modifications necessary.

This is a content partnership between MyDoc and Lifestyle Collective for the MyDoc@Work programme, to provide high-quality and validated health information. The information shared has been reviewed by medical staff to ensure that is represented accurately, and the content in the article is based on the best information available.