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Vegetarian Diet

The simplest definition of vegetarianism is a diet free of meat, fish, and fowl flesh. However in the strict conservative context of the Indian subcontinent, eggs are also considered non-vegan. Eating habits of vegetarians cover a wide spectrum. At one end are lacto-ovo vegetarians who avoid animal flesh but eat eggs and milk products. At the other end are vegans, who forego eating (and often wearing) all animal-based products, honey included.

Reasons for Becoming a Vegetarian

Many adherents of vegetarianism and veganism regard a flesh-free diet not only as more healthful, but as a more ethical way to live. They point to the cruel practices and the high environmental cost of raising animals for food as a few reasons for excluding meat from the diet.

Vegetarianism and Health

Most doctors and nutritionists agree that a low-fat diet high in fruits, vegetables, and nuts can be a boon to health. There is also widespread acknowledgment that reducing or eliminating red meat from the diet cuts the risk of heart disease. Research also has shown that a plant-based diet can improve the health of people with type 2 diabetes.

Does Being a Vegetarian Lower Cancer Risk?

Whether being a vegetarian lowers your cancer risk is not clear at present. This is mainly because of the diversity within the vegetarian population. Studies, however, have suggested that people who do not eat meat have a lower risk of prostate and gastrointestinal cancers. Many of the cancer/vegetarian studies often conclude that diets rich in fiber, carotenoids (found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach), vitamins, minerals, and isoflavones (found in soybeans and legumes),seem to protect against disease, including cancer.

A British study of 11,000 vegetarians and healthy eaters concluded that daily consumption of fruit was associated with a 20%-plus reduction in mortality from heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancers of the stomach, lung, pancreas, large intestine, and rectum.

Vegetarianism and Nutrition

A vegetarian diet can be a healthy diet, but vegetarians need to make sure they're getting enough vitamin B12, calcium, and iron. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics of America warns of the risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies in strict vegetarians (vegans). Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia and blindness. It can also cause muscle weakness, tingling, and numbness.

Calcium is another nutrient that may be lacking in some vegetarian diets. Ovo-vegetarians, who eat eggs but not dairy, need to find foods that compensate for the missing calcium from their diets. Dark green vegetables are a good source of calcium. Lacto-vegetarians (who don't eat eggs) also need to boost their intake of B12 and iron. A vegan diet, in particular, may lead to an increased risk of deficiencies of vitamin B12, vitamin B2, calcium, iron, and zinc.

Is a Vegan Diet Safe During Pregnancy?

The recommendations are a bit more strict for pregnant and lactating women who are vegan. Having a vitamin B12 deficiency, particularly, has been shown to impair neurological development in infants nursed by vegetarian mothers. A lack of vitamin D and calcium also can result in bone demineralization in breastfeeding women. Similarly, young children (under 5) reared on vegetarian and vegan diets can suffer impaired growth. That's because of a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can also result in anemia and rickets. Yet a well planned diet can meet all the nutritional needs.


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Vegetarian Diet

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