Vegetarian diets are balanced, complete and healthy…lots of reasons why you should opt for it..Dr. JALAJA RAMASWAMY

What is one of the growing trends now? Vegetarianism. It is true that more people are opting for a diet that is devoid of meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Why be a vegetarian? Many adopt this mode of diet for religious, ethical, health and economic reasons.

However, the term vegetarian is misleading because there are many types of vegetarians. Meat based diets do have a string of benefits. But arguments in favour of a vegetarian diet certainly appear compelling.

The safest way to eat is to follow a vegetarian diet: no hormones or additives in your foods. Meat carry bacteria and the potential diseases associated with them more often than beans, grains or vegetables. But one cannot negate the fact that fruits and vegetables can also be associated with pesticides and other residues.

Rich in nutrients

Vegetarian diets lower the burden of chronic diseases. Lacto-vegetarians are often impressively healthier – sometimes a lot healthier – than meat eaters. It is uncertain whether this advantage extends to vegans.

Plant-based diets containing whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fats and cholesterol and higher in fibre, vitamin C, folate, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals implicated in the protection against many diseases. Such diets also lower the risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Diets low in fibre and in which chicken and meat are the principal ingredients can dramatically increase the incidence of colorectal cancers.

Plant foods are also high in phytochemicals called polyphenols and contain higher proportions of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These substances have recently been shown to have beneficial effects on maintaining the integrity of brain function during the ageing process.

Vegetarian diets may help in weight loss and long-term weight control and are associated with longevity. Diets containing animal products are generally higher in fat and calorific value while plant foods are low in energy and are nutrient dense.

It has also been reported that vegetarians have a more desirable body odour!

Plan carefully

However, the more limiting a diet is, the more difficult it is to get all the nutrients required by your body. Can vegetarian diets, therefore, be balanced, complete and healthy? The answer is yes. According to the American Dietetic Association “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are suitable for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.” Only the most restrictive vegan diets can perhaps cause nutritional concerns and compromise on calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and sometimes even protein.

Vegetarian meals need not be boring or limiting. Whip up a variety of recipes from plant foods and feast on them. If you can't be a vegetarian, a healthy option would be to limit intake of animal foods and increase intake of fruits and vegetables.

Remember what Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Plan your diet

So how does one go about planning a vegetarian diet? Getting the right balance of nutrients from the vegetarian meals is easy and not mind-boggling. The key is a careful selection of foods.

l Ensure a variety of foods from the different food groups: cereals, pulses, dals and nuts, fruits and vegetables and dairy products. Then you don't have to be concerned about the nutritional inadequacies.

l Make sure that your principal sources of carbohydrates are whole grains. Reduce intake of refined cereals and sugars. If rice is a must, go for brown rice.

l Plant proteins are incomplete proteins but their quality improves when eaten with cereal proteins. Include pulses, dals, beans and nuts in every meal. If you like soya or soya products, add them for protein adequacy.

l At least five servings of fruits and vegetables is a great way to ensure your minerals, vitamins, fibre andphytochemicals. Green leafy vegetables will provide the iron. Add a citrus fruit to improve the absorption of iron.

l Include some dairy products as a source of calcium and vitamin B12. Fermented foods can also provide some B12. Emphasise on including calcium-rich plant foods such pulses and greens.

l The greatest benefit would come from the use of oils containing high percentage of mono unsaturated fatty acids, Olive, til, rice bran or even soya oil.

l Fish is the best source of Omega 3 fatty acids (with a cardio protective effect) for the meat eaters. In plant-based diets the sources of omega 3 fatty acids would be leafy vegetables, walnuts and flax seeds.