The vegetarian diet has recently become popular as a healthy way of losing weight. It is low in fat and cholesterol, still offers a lot of variety in terms of flavors and textures, and (properly managed) can be very nutritious and filling. Many vegetables have also been linked to the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
There are many different levels of vegetarianism, and you can choose one that you feel comfortable with, or start with the less stricter variations before going all out. A true vegetarian eats no meat at all, including chicken and fish. A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy products and eggs, but excludes meat, fish, and poultry. It follows, then, that a lacto vegetarian eats dairy products but not eggs, whereas an ovo vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.
The strictest form of vegetarianism is a vegan diet. Not only are you prohibited from eating any animal meat, egg, or dairy, you can’t eat animal products like honey and gelatin. You would be surprised at how many things you would think were vegetarian but aren’t like gelatin (which is made from meat byproducts), cheese (which is processed from an animal-based product called rennet), and sauces such as Worcestershire sauce.
Semi-vegetarians eat fish and a small amount of poultry, but the majority of the diet must come from vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
If you are following a strict vegan diet, you need to consult a registered dietitian, especially if you are a teenager. Teenagers need plenty of protein and calcium to fuel their growth spurts, and your meals have to be designed to include enough vitamins and mineral substitutes to make sure that you still meet your required daily allowances (RDAs). In fact, it is important that you educate yourself before going into any vegetarian diet. You can’t just drop certain types of food. To maintain good health, high energy levels, and strong muscles and bones, you have to find suitable alternatives to animal meat and animal products.
They are valuable sources of iron, calcium, protein, vitamins D and B12, and zinc. Where will you get them? Here are some suggestions:
- Iron. Load up on sea vegetables like nori, wakame, and dulse (check Japanese cookbooks for ways of preparing them). Not prepared for something that exotic? Then turn to iron-fortified breakfast cereals and legumes (chickpeas, lentils, and baked beans). Soybeans and tofu are a favorite source, mainly because certain types of tofu can be processed to have the texture of meat, and goes well with almost any sauce usually served with chicken or pork. Dried fruit (raisins and figs), pumpkin seeds, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses are high in iron, too. Women will need to take larger quantities of iron, because some of it is lost during menstruation.
- Vitamin C. For your body to process iron, it needs to have a lot of vitamin C. So take plenty of citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and broccoli.
- Calcium. The best sources of calcium are milk and yoghurt, but that’s only if you allow yourself to eat dairy products. If not, then you’ll have to get it from tofu, fortified soy milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs. Calcium is particularly important for teens, as your bones are still developing. Women also need to be careful; because of hormonal changes, you are at greater risk for getting osteoporosis. Your calcium reserves are also depleted during pregnancy. Consider asking your doctor to prescribe a calcium supplement.
- Vitamin D. Your body needs Vitamin D to process calcium and get it into the bones. If you can’t take cow’s milk (an excellent source), then at least get it from sunshine. Soy milk and breakfast cereals may provide some levels of Vitamin D, but look for those that are specifically labeled as “fortified”
- Protein. There are some misleading reports that vegetarians must combine two incomplete plant proteins in one meal (e.g., red beans and rice) to create the complete protein that is found in meat. Thankfully, it’s not that complicated. Just get your protein sources from a variety of foods, and your body will do the processing for you. If you are not a strict vegetarian, you can find it in eggs and dairy products, but other alternatives are nuts, peanut butter, tofu, beans, seeds, soy milk, grains, cereals, and vegetables.
- Vitamin B12. Unfortunately this important vitamin can only be found in animal products, such as eggs and dairy. Some soy milk and breakfast cereal brands will be fortified with Vitamin B12, but double-check the label. Otherwise, you may need a supplement.
- Zinc. While easiest to get from dairy products, you can also find zinc in fortified cereals, dried beans, nuts, and soy products like tofu and tempeh.
Vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber, and low in fat and calories. That’s part of its appeal and why so many people lose weight while following its regimen. The fiber makes you feel full, so you eat less without being deprived. And the lowered fat intake make a vegetarian diet ideal for those who are trying to control their cholesterol.
However, the danger of an unplanned and unsupervised vegetarian diet is that you are not getting enough calories to support adequate growth or sustain your energy throughout the day. Always talk to your doctor about it, and join vegetarian online groups so you can raise your questions with people who have done it before. It’s important to be informed.