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People follow a vegetarian diet for multiple reasons. For some, it has a religious significance while others are drawn towards it for ethical reasons.
Some people choose it on account of the health benefits that such a diet offers, e.g. the reduced incidence of cardiovascular diseases.

Classification of vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet can be grouped under three headings. They are:
  • Vegan diet which includes only plant products and excludes products that contain meat, fish, poultry, eggs and even dairy products.
  • Lacto vegetarian diet which consists of plant and dairy products but excludes meat, fish, poultry and eggs.
  • Lacto ovo vegetarian diet which includes products of plants, eggs and dairy products while excluding meat, fish and poultry.
  • Semi vegetarian diet which basically consists of plant products but also includes meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products in small amounts.
A well thought out vegetarian diet can meet the demands of all age groups as well as pregnant or lactating women. It is just that one should be aware of the physiological needs of the body while charting the diet. Knowing about the food pyramid can be really helpful while planning a vegetarian diet.

The food pyramid

The basis of a healthy diet is the quality and the amount of food we consume. It is essential to consume a variety of food items as no single food contains all the nutrients required by our body. The challenge to get all the requisite nutrients increases even more when the diet excludes certain food items. A vegetarian diet pyramid formulated by the American Dietetic Association helps us to know about the various food groups which should be included in our diet and the number of servings of each.

According to the pyramid, grains form the base of the pyramid and about 6 servings of it are recommended. Next to grains come protein rich foods like pulses, nuts and legumes. 5 servings of this component of diet per day are sufficient for the body. 4 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits are recommended every day. On the top of the food pyramid are fats. Not more than 2 servings of fat are advised.

Include nutrients which are found in less quantity in a vegetarian diet

As the vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs and even dairy products in certain cases, extra effort should be made to replenish the diet with certain nutrients which are found in less quantity in a vegetarian diet. These nutrients include:yeast.jpg

5.    Vitamin B12: This nutrient is essential for the production of the red blood cells. It is hardly present in the vegan diet and its deficiency is usually not noticed until very late. Vitamin enriched breakfast cereals and fortified soy based beverages, burgers and nutritional yeast should be added in the diet to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency.

6.    Vitamin D: Important for strong bones, this nutrient is added to soy and rice milk and some cereals. It is essential to consume these fortified foods and have enough sun exposure to prevent vitamin D deficiency.

7.    Zinc: Essential for cell division, protein formation and certain enzymatic actions, it is found in wheat germ, soy products, legumes and nuts apart from milk and other dairy products. However, absorption of plant sourced zinc is deficient in our body and so its consumption should be proportionately increased.

Points to be remembered by the diet conscious vegetarians

  • It is important to replace meat with protein sources that have a low fat content like lentils, rice and beans instead of calorie laden high fat cheese.
  • Replacing milk with calcium fortified soy milk provides calcium with add on benefit of low fat content and no cholesterol.
  • Dry beans and peas are rich in nutritional content, yet low in calories. You can savor a split pea soup or a three bean salad without feeling guilty about the calories.
  • Instead of going for cheese, one can opt for walnuts or pecans in a green salad. They provide the essential fatty acids which are so good for the heart.
  • The cream sauce in the pasta dish at some fancy restaurant can alone ruin the diet program for the entire day. Homemade meals are low in fat and sodium as one can keep an eye on the quantity of cooking oil, the sauces and salts used for dressings.
  • Instead of those sugar laden fruit juices, go for the fruit itself. It will be rich in nutrients and will also provide you fibers besides being low on the calories.
  • Instead of those potato chips, high on unhealthy fat content, opt for an organic apple with cheddar cheese. Besides being low on calories, it provides protein and fiber to the body.
  • Raw kale chips, Nori rice cakes, low fat yogurts, dried fruit, granola and nuts are good for the diet conscious people. Replacing a Hershey’s chocolate with an organic bar will satisfy your craving for something sweet and is better for your waistline as well.
There are ongoing studies to prove that a low calorie, nutritious vegetarian diet may be effective against chronic diseases and premature aging. So go for a vegetarian diet, keeping an eye on the calories count, for a fitter and healthier life.