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How nutritious are vegetarian diets compared to the omnivorous diet?
Posted by Jayson Hunter on 22 April 2011 11:18 AM
There are at least two ways of approaching the question 'how nutritious is a particular diet?' First, it can be considered in terms of the 'completeness' of the diet (that is, does it provide all known essential nutrients in at least the minimum recommended quantities). It can also be addressed in terms of 'how much does the diet promote good health' (ie, how many components does it contain that are considered health-promoting compared to those associated with adverse health outcome). Considering the 'completeness' aspect first: Semi vegetarian, lacto vegetarian, and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets--when properly planned--have been consistently found to provide the full range of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fiber necessary for optimal nutritional status. In this, they are approximately equivalent to properly planned omnivorous diets. However, as they are often practiced, these vegetarian diets can lead to low iron status. Vegetarian teenage girls and women of child-bearing age are particularly at risk of iron-deficiency anemia because red meat is one the best dietary sources of iron. Proper planning can help ensure that adequate iron status is maintained when the diet does not contain red meat. For example, combining a source of vitamin C (such as fruit or fruit juice) with wheat-based cereal foods will increase the absorption of the iron available in the cereal. Eggs, legumes (a term that includes peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy foods) and nuts are also significant sources of iron. The vegan diet, on the other hand, is likely to be low in several essential nutrients. Because foods of plant origin do not contain significant quantities of vitamin B12, vegans need to eat foods that have been fortified with this vitamin to avoid the type of anemia (known as 'megaloblastic anemia') that results from vitamin B12 deficiency. Other nutrients at risk for vegans include protein, iron, zinc and calcium. Grain foods, legumes, potatoes, seeds and nuts are good sources of protein. Legumes, nuts and dried fruits are quite good sources of calcium, while legumes and seeds provide significant quantities of zinc. From the point of view of promotion of good health, despite the greater risk of some vitamin deficiencies, is fair to say that vegetarians in Western nations often eat a diet that is closer to the recommended pattern of food intake than their omnivorous relatives or neighbors. Vegetarian diets include higher intakes of cereal foods, vegetables (including legumes) and fruits--and therefore of dietary fiber--with lower intakes of fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt.
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