Fruit and vegetables basketIf you have ever thought that vegetarianism is a fashion or a fad or something that attracts only hippies and eco-warriors you couldn't be more wrong. Vegetarianism and veganism have actually been around for centuries and centuries, and are an important part of many cultures and religions from Hinduism to Buddhism through to Zoroastrianism. For many people, the reasons for committing to these lifestyles are enormously varied.

What does a Vegetarian Diet Consist of?

Vegetarians choose to eat no animal flesh so this means an absence of red meat, poultry and seafood. Beyond this basic definition are lacto-ovo vegetarians who will eat dairy products and eggs, while ovo-vegetarians consume eggs but no dairy. Lacto-vegetarians eat only dairy products. The vegan lifestyle is more restrictive.

The International Vegetarian Union suggests that vegetarians at minimum refrain from eating all animal flesh, however vegetarians are able to eat a full range of beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables.

What is a Vegan?

The vegan diet is very restrictive. It seeks to avoid animal products of any kind. There is no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and even honey and many other products such as silk, leather and wool clothing are also rejected.

Why Choose a Vegetarian Diet?

Health is obviously a major factor in the shift from meat eating to non-meat eating. Those of us with high cholesterol or who are overweight can often benefit from the switch away from animal fats. Nowadays however, ethical concerns about animal welfare and food safety are also making a vegetarian diet more attractive.

The Pros of a Vegetarian Diet

Research has shown that vegetarianism can actually reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity. Vegetarian diets are associated with lower body mass index (BMI), while those vegetarians whose diets that are low-fat and high-fibre alter the levels of bacteria in the gut which is essential for colon health and overall health. It has also been suggested that vegetarianism, can make you more mentally alert and capable, with certain studies linking a reduced risk of dementia to a meat free diet.

Experts suggest that vegetarian and vegan diets lengthen and improve life in later years. Many vegetarians report more energy and better looking skin. A well planned vegetarian diet can help to prevent and treat diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Becoming a vegetarian is also good for the health of the planet as livestock production generates about a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases. It simultaneously increases the demand for pesticides and uses many resources that are becoming increasingly scarce and valuable, such as oil, land and water.

The Cons of a Vegetarian Diet

Unfortunately being a vegetarian doesn't automatically make you fit and healthy. A baked potato is one thing, a baked potato fully loaded with butter, mayonnaise and cheddar cheese is quite another. It is possible to eat all the wrong things on a vegetarian diet – many cakes and pastries can easily pass as vegetarian– so it is important to eat healthily and plan your meals in advance in spite of your switch to non-meat eating.

Another issue with vegetarian and vegan diets is that many essential nutrients can be lacking within a strict regime. Vitamin B12 for example is only found in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids largely come from oily fish so vegetarians need to research where else they can find these essential nutrients (some nuts and seeds) as this is essential to the normal functioning of the body and brain.

Those that reject dairy products may find that the absorption of Vitamin D is a problem. This is especially the case for vegans as they do not consume vitamin D-fortified dairy products. Studies have found that vegetarians lack the vitamins that are crucial for bone health. Vitamin-D deficiency raises the risk of osteoporosis later in life and this is potentially serious.

Soy and quinoa are two (from ten) great sources of amino acids but strict vegans will not get enough protein. Vegans have to carefully pair foods up so that they get a complete range. They can eat rice and beans at the same meal, as well as other pairings such as peanut butter and rice cakes.

A further issue for vegetarians and particularly vegans is that they must be vigilant about the hidden ingredients in food. For example, many milk cheeses have been made with rennet which is derived from the stomachs of calves. Many sweets contain gelatine. A number of fats are derived from animals.

Should You Take Supplements?

Strict vegans are typically advised by their doctors to take supplements. The supplements that vegetarians and vegans take will need to reflect the length of time they have been vegan or vegetarian, and the specific nutritional needs of the individual. Vitamins are critical to many of our basic cell processes, so deficiency may lead to problems in the body's organs and the brain.

Vegetarians must pay particular attention to eating enough protein, iron, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, and Vitamin B12. Vegans particularly will need B12 supplements or B12-fortified plant foods to maintain their health.

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