An image of a display of vegetables (red peppers, obergines, leeks, tomatoes) for a post about types of plant based diet (vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, flexitarian, lactovegetarian) and what to eat to provide necessary nutrients

Plant Based Diet – Is It Safe to Be Vegetarian?

 

Types of Plant Based Diet

 

I have never been much of carnivore: I could do without meat for days on end. But I do enjoy good meat or poultry dishes like Peking duck or roast lamb when I have it now and then. That is probably why I never considered becoming a vegetarian myself and didn't even know there were a few variations of a plant based diet:

 
TYPE OF
FOOD
TYPE OF DIET
Plant-based
Dairy
Eggs
Fish
Polutry
Red meat
Vegans
Lacto vegetarians
Lacto-ovo vegetarians
Quasivegetarians
(pescatarians)
“Far” vegetarians
occasionally
Semi vegetarians (flexitarians)
occasionally
occasionally

 

When my daughter announced she wanted to become a vegetarian, firstly I wanted to change her mind. I simply didn’t think it was safe for a teenager not to eat meat at all. But when I did not succeed in convincing her, I decided to learn more about plant based diet as it is better the devil you know.

Nutrients of Concern

 

Proteins were my primary concern at the beginning. They contain nine essential amino acids necessary for our body tissue to function properly, and all animal products (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy) are their obvious source. However, I have learnt there are luckily some plant foods that also include all the essential amino acids: soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh, soy milk), quinoa and spirulina. Additionally, if you combine plant food that doesn’t contain the complete proteins with other (complimentary) foods, you can supply your body with the essential amino acids. Such combinations include amongst others: beans & rice, hummus & pita bread, tofu & rice, beans & corn, beans & tortilla, lentils & bulgur, peas & bread, etc.

So getting enough proteins doesn’t seem to be a problem when you are on a plant based diet. However, some other nutrients should be specially considered by vegetarians as not eating animal products may make it harder to obtain the required amounts. Here are the nutrients and also tips how to make sure a vegetarian gets enough of them:

Iron – although it exists in plant food, it is not as easily absorbed as iron from animal food. So vegetarians should consume about 80% more iron than non-vegetarians. Soybeans, beans, legumes and fortified grains are good sources of iron. It is worth noting that Vitamin C intensifies absorption of iron.

Zinc – similarly to iron its plant “version” is less bioavailable than the animal one. You can find it in whole grains, legumes, soy products, and nuts.

Calcium – vegetarians consuming dairy products are likely to get enough calcium, but vegans may experience some deficiencies. Calcium-fortified products, as well as soy milk, tofu, leafy greens and broccoli, may be a solution.

Vitamin D is mainly found in animal products; that is why vegans should consume Vitamin D fortified foods and expose themselves to the sun (obviously without taking the risk of skin cancer!). Otherwise, tablet supplements might be required.

Vitamin B2 is found mainly in milk (so lactovegetarians should not have a problem with providing their bodies with sufficient amounts). If vegans’ diet is varied and they eat enough green vegetables, whole grains, and fortified foods, they probably will get enough.

Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, so a solution for vegans is either fortified food or tablet supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in fish products. Vegetarians not consuming fish may get some of the omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts, soy, algae and flaxseed and fortified food.

Iodine typically is present in dairy products and seafood so vegans and some vegetarians may not get enough of it. That is why they should opt for iodized salt as a solution.

As you can see, people who eliminate animal products from their diet (vegans) may suffer some deficiencies of vitamin B-12 and D as well as of calcium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore taking tablet supplements may be necessary. For other types of plant-based diets, if meals are well balanced, and some fortified food is consumed, this problem may not appear at all.

 

Plant Based Diet – Health Benefits

 

So far I have only mentioned possible areas of concern of plant based diets but are there any health benefits? If you are a vegetarian and you base your diet mainly on nutrient dense food (whole products), you will see lots of health benefits. You will have lower BMI and blood pressure. Your bad cholesterol level will drop. You will also lower risk of many chronic diseases e.g. type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension and some types of cancer.

So the answer to the question from the title is yes, it is safe to be vegetarian. In truth, it may even be advisable to be vegetarian. But if you are still not ready to eliminate meat from your diet to take advantage of all the health benefits, please note that even reducing intake of red meat to less than 42g per day could lower the risk of cardiovascular and cancer diseases and mortality by 8-9%. I think this small change could result in a big difference and it is certainly worth making.

 


 

 

2 Comments

  1. A lot of great information. I personally am not a vegetarian but I do typically eat at least one vegetarian meal a week. I have often considered the benefits vs. the risks of switching to a plant based diet with only occasional meat dishes. Thanks for sharing!

  2. You are welcome. I am glad you found the information useful. When I was preparing that post, I read a lot about plant-based diets, and it helped me to appreciate their benefits. But I know it is a big change to be on such a diet: these days I am “almost” a vegetarian. Almost – because I still can’t give up some of my favourite meat dishes 😉

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