Does Being Vegetarian Mean Healthful Eating?

Vegetarianism can be an exceptionally healthful diet, but for some, it means Coke and pizza.

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No. A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but don't forget that the all-American vegetarian diet is Coke, pizza, and ice cream. Also, many people in the world eat a poverty vegetarian diet that is mostly starch and salt—clearly not healthy.

A desirable vegetarian diet would consist of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and protein packages, along with plenty of vegetables and fruits. Healthy carbohydrates mean whole grains and few refined starches and sugars. Healthy fats include almost all of the vegetable oils that have not been partially hydrogenated (meaning they won't contain trans fats); palm oil and coconut oil in modest amounts are also OK. Of course, the protein package most distinguishes vegetarian diets, and not including red meat will make the diet healthier as this is related to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and probably some cancers. Alternative vegetarian sources of protein would include a combination of nuts, beans, and soy products; these are not only lower in saturated fat and don't contain cholesterol, but they also are great sources of micronutrients, healthy fats, and fiber.

Some versions of a vegetarian diet also include eggs, fish, or dairy products. Considerable evidence links high dairy-product consumption to an elevated risk of fatal prostate cancer, so I think limiting these foods to not more than one to two servings a day makes sense. The advice about elevated need for calcium is simply wrong. The World Health Organization's recommended adequate intake for calcium is 500 mg per day, which is easily obtained with a diet containing less than one serving of dairy a day. Also, all the large prospective studies consistently show no relation between intake of milk and risk of fracture.

If you do decide to follow a strict vegan diet, meaning no animal products at all, vitamin B12 deficiency is likely to develop. This can result in seizures, neurologic degeneration, and death. Therefore, everyone on this type of diet should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement or using foods fortified with vitamin B12.

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