Your Health

Vegetarian diets may help guard against chronic diseases

Senior woman with a pill bottle.
Photo of Kerri Cuthbert KERRI CUTHBERT
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Thursday, November 10, 2016

Vegetarianism continues to be a popular option for many people.

These days, it’s much easier to find a vegetarian restaurant, or one that includes a few vegetarian dishes on its menu, than it used to be, say 15 or 20 years ago.

Grocery stores have also upped their game, offering foods such as meatless burgers and sausages, and other products that are both tasty and meat-free.

As a registered dietitian, I often come across people are who are curious about vegetarianism, but still have a lot of questions about whether it can provide the nutrition needed to maintain good health. Here are some of the more commonly asked questions. 

What’s the difference between the different types of vegetarianism?  

The vegetarian diet may differ depending on the person. Some may eat certain animal products or none at all. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, for example, eat dairy and eggs but do not eat meat, poultry and fish. Pesco-vegetarians eat dairy, eggs and fish, but do not eat meat and poultry. Vegans do not eat dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and fish. In addition, vegans also may not purchase any clothing made from animal products or products tested on animals.

There are also flexitarians: people who eat vegetarian meals sometimes, but at times still include meat in their diet. If you are wondering what a vegetarian in your life does or does not eat, just ask them. They will likely be more than happy to tell you.

Does a vegetarian diet provide sufficient nutrition for good health?

Absolutely. It is entirely possible to get enough adequate nutrition through a vegetarian diet, but there are some nutrients that may require special attention.

There is a perception that the protein intake of vegetarians may be limited, but the reality is that most vegetarians have no problem getting enough protein through meat alternatives like pulses (beans, lentils and peas), tofu, nuts and seeds.

The nutrients that do require special attention include iron and vitamin B12. While there are a number of high-iron vegetarian foods, it is harder for the body to absorb the form of iron in these foods. Vegetarians may require 1.8 times more iron than non-vegetarians due to the decreased absorption of plant-based iron sources.

Regarding vitamin B12, lacto-ovo vegetarians will likely be able to meet their vitamin B12 needs through dairy products and eggs. Vegans, however, will require a source of vitamin B12 either from a supplement, fortified food, nutritional yeast or a reliable modified plant source (some non-dairy milk alternatives, for example), as they do not consume any animal products.
Calcium, vitamin D, and zinc could also require special attention, but in most cases eating a variety of foods and at times exploring supplementation options will allow vegetarians and vegans to meet all of their nutrient needs.

Children of all ages can also get all the nutrients they need to grow and develop from well-planned vegetarian or vegan diets. It is recommended that you speak to a health-care provider or a registered dietitian before fully committing to this eating pattern in children.

What are the main potential health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet?

There are many possible health benefits from making a partial or complete switch to meatless or plant-based diets.

Well-planned vegetarian diets (which include a variety of healthy foods) are lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre, as well as vitamins C and E. There are many studies to show that vegetarian eating can help protect against, or lower the poor outcomes of, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

I want to eat more vegetarian foods - where should I start?

Start small, with one meatless meal per week and gradually decrease the amount of meat you eat. Many people start with "Meatless Monday." If you’re not ready to completely rid one meal of meat, try replacing half of the amount of meat in a recipe and substituting in a meat alternative. There are many excellent vegetarian cookbooks, blogs, and websites available to give you some ideas. Try Mexican, Indian, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines - many of their foods and recipes are vegetarian, so you won’t have to modify anything. 

Kerri Cuthbert is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.

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