Vegetarian Diet: Types, Benefits and Dietary Adequacy

The term vegetarian generally means a person who does not consume animal products; this includes land and sea animals. Most vegetarians generally do consume eggs and dairy products (milk products).

Somebody who does not consume any animal protein at all, not even eggs, dairy, or honey, is a vegan. Some people call themselves vegetarians, but they consume fish.

If you follow a vegetarian diet you should be careful that you eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you meet your nutritional requirements.

History of Vegetarianism

The earliest records of vegetarianism come from the 6th century B.C., in India, Greece and the Greek civilization in Southern Italy. In all these cases vegetarianism was closely linked to a desire not to harm animals. In India this peace towards animals was called ahimsa and was a common lifestyle among religious people and philosophers.

The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Empire virtually eliminated all traces of vegetarianism from Europe. Many orders of monks in medieval Europe either banned or limited meat consumption as a gesture of personal sacrifice or abstinence – however, none of them shunned fish. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that vegetarianism started to get a foothold again in Western society.

The Vegetarian Society was formed in England in 1847; equivalent societies soon followed in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. During the 20th century vegetarianism caught on swiftly throughout Western society. People´s motivations were for ethical, environmental, or economic reasons – and sometimes a combination or two or three reasons. Approximately 70% of the world´s lacto-vegetarians are in India, it is estimated. Approximately 20% to 42% of India´s population is vegetarian.

Types of Vegetarian Diets

A vegetarian eating style is defined broadly and consists of a range of eating patterns. The various patterns are distinguished by the foods excluded from the diet.

When people think about a vegetarian diet, they typically think about a diet that doesn’t include meat, poultry or fish. But vegetarian diets vary in what foods they include and exclude:

The most basic types of vegetarian diets include Lacto-vegetarian, Lacto-ovo vegetarian, Ovo-vegetarian, and Vegan.

  • Lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, are included.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but allow eggs.
  • Vegan diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products — and foods that contain these products.

Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet Plan

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dietitians of Canada have stated that at all stages of life, a properly planned vegetarian diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”. Large-scale studies have shown that mortality from ischaemic heart disease was 30% lower among vegetarian men and 20% lower among vegetarian women than in non-vegetarians. Vegetarian diets offer lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein, and higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.

  • Lower bad cholesterol.
  • Lower risk of heart disease.
  • Enjoy better health.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and body mass index.

Nutritional Significance and Dietary Adequacy

In general, well-planned vegetarian diets are compatible with adequate growth and meet most nutritional requirements for adolescents. However, it is well documented that zinc, iron, and calcium intakes are low among adolescent girls consuming omnivorous and vegetarian diets alike. In a plant-based diet, there is concern that a high intake of fiber and phytates can interfere with zinc and iron absorption.With adequate planning and inclusion of a variety of food sources, most vegetarian diets (with the exception of vegan or macrobiotic diets) can be substantial on their own, without the need of vitamin supplementation.

1. Protein

One misperception of vegetarian diets is that they are universally low in protein. Protein is found in a wide variety of plant foods, particularly in whole grains, nuts, and legumes. However, no single plant food provides a complete protein source since they are limited sources of one or more essential amino acids. Contrary to popular belief, incomplete proteins (such as grains) do not have to be consumed in the same meal to meet protein needs. Requirements for essential amino acids will be met if energy intake is adequate and a variety of plant foods are consumed over the course Legumes (dried beans), seeds, whole grains, nuts, and whole wheat pasta are particularly good sources of amino acids for vegans. Dairy products and eggs are excellent sources of complete proteins for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians (LOV).

2. Fat

Fat is essential for growth and development. At least 20% of total energy consumed should come from fatty acids. Inadequate intakes of fat may result in essential fatty acid deficiencies or inadequate energy intake, leading to delayed or stunted physical growth. Diets of vegetarian adolescents should be assessed for adequacy of total fat and essential fatty acid intakes, with special attention focused on intakes of the essential fatty acids.

3. Calcium

The most common sources of calcium are dairy products, but for vegans this source is not acceptable. Consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, and calcium-fortified foods and beverages can provide calcium for vegans. Not all milk substitutes or juices are fortified with calcium, however. Reading labels is the best way to make sure a food is a calcium-rich product.

4. Vitamin D

To properly utilize calcium, an adequate intake of vitamin D is necessary. The primary sources of vitamin D in most diets are dairy products. While sunlight exposure can improve vitamin D status, a dietary source is generally needed, especially in northern climates. For vegans, consuming foods supplemented with vitamin D such as milk substitutes or cereals is a critical way to obtain this vitamin.

5. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal sources only. The importance of vitamin B12 relates to its role in spinal cord, brain, optic nerve, and peripheral nerve function. Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in serious and sometimes irreversible neurologic abnormalities. Vegetarians who do not consume animal-derived foods need a reliable dietary source of vitamin B12. The active form of vitamin B12 in humans is cyanocobalamin. Cyanocobalamin can be found in fortified breakfast cereal, fortified soy beverages, some multivitamins, and some several brands of nutritional yeast. It is important to note that inactive analogs of vitamin B12 may be present in some foods such as spirulina, seaweed, tempeh, and fermented foods.

6. Iron

The iron status of vegetarians is always of concern since the predominant source of iron in plant- based foods is in the non-heme form, which is less bioavailable than the heme form found in animal sources such as meats. Adolescent females are particularly likely to consume low levels of dietary iron. Good sources of iron available to vegetarians include fortified and enriched cereals and grain products, legumes, dried fruit, pasta, and green leafy vegetables.

7. Zinc

Zinc is important for optimal growth and sexual maturation during adolescence. The recommended intake for adolescents is 8-11 mg/day. Some zinc sources for vegetarians include fortified cereals, legumes, nuts, eggs, soy foods, and dairy products.

A Sample Vegetarian Diet Plan

Breakfast: Raisin wheats breakfast cereal, a glass of grapefruit juice & Satsuma.

Lunch: Fresh carrot & coriander soup with multi-seeded bread, half a melon & yogurt.

Dinner: Vegetable stuffed spuds with a watercress & tomato salad & dressing. A yogurt dessert plus a bunch of seedless grapes.

Snacks: Crispbread snack with low fat spread & seedless grapes plus a handful of whole almonds.

Here are some key messages to follow a vegetarian diet plan:

  • Include a variety of foods in the diet– don’t be afraid to try new foods.
  • Try to avoid skipping meals.
  • Encourage snacks of nutrient-dense foods that provide calcium, iron, and other vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid restricting fat to levels below 20% of calories or consuming many high fat “vegetarian” snacks, such as snack chips, cookies, and cakes.