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Eating Well the Veggie Way

You Can Make Any Type of Vegetarian Diet a Healthy One

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

You Can Make Any Type of Vegetarian Diet a Healthy One

Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, pepperoni pizza. . .these are the foods Americans crave around the clock, right? Not necessarily. Research shows more and more Americans are choosing to eat vegetarian meals.

A 1999 survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that increasing amounts of American women -- over 2/3 of those surveyed -- are choosing vegetarian meals when they eat out.

  • 6% of the women said they always order a dish without meat, fish, or fowl
  • 14% of the women said they often order a dish without meat, fish or fowl
  • 45% of the women said they sometimes order a dish without meat, fish or fowl when they eat out

And of course many people choose vegetarian dishes for all of their meals. There are various types of vegetarianism, from a strictly "vegan" diet of all plant products, to diets that include various types of animal products.

People choose to eat vegetarian meals for all sorts of reasons: concern for animals, their health, the health of the planet, world hunger, religion. Or perhaps they just don't like the taste of meat. Regardless, if you're considering starting a vegetarian diet, it's a good idea to get information from your doctor first.

More of the Good Stuff

From a nutritional perspective, this is a great trend. By eating less meat and more vegetable-based entrees, people are likely to be eating less saturated fat and cholesterol and more fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.

Phytochemicals are plant compounds or chemicals, such as the lutein in broccoli and spinach or the lycopene in tomatoes and pink grapefruit, that may help prevent various diseases (like cancerous tumors) in three ways:

  • They have antioxidant properties (meaning they help protect your body's cells by countering the effects of toxic substances produced when the body processes oxygen).
  • They help activate enzymes that help make cancer-causing substances less toxic.
  • They help inhibit the rapid growth of tumor cells.)

Antioxidants are substances that help protect against oxygen damage by neutralizing the harmful effects of so-called "free radicals" -- the agents within the body that can damage cell membranes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes four food-based antioxidants; vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (including beta carotene), and selenium. You will find beta carotene and other carotenoids and vitamin C mainly in fruits and vegetables.

Getting Enough Nutrients

A recent German study found that some vegetarians -- particularly those who eat no animal products at all -- may end up with low vitamin B12 and iron levels. The study, which looked at vegans, lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians, found that vegans had the lowest counts of those nutrients.

It is easier to meet the dietary requirements for protein, calcium, iron, and B12 when your diet contains dairy and/or egg foods, as these foods are rich in some nutrients that plant foods have little or none of.

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