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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.
People follow a vegetarian diet for multiple reasons. For some, it has a religious significance while others are drawn towards a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons. Some people choose to become vegetarian on account of the health benefits that such a diet offers, such as a reduced incidence of cardiovascular diseases [1].

Different Kinds Of Vegetarian Diets

A vegetarian diet can be grouped under three headings. They are:
  • A vegan diet, which includes only plant products and excludes products that contain meat, fish, poultry, eggs and even dairy products. Some vegans avoid any product of animal origin, which would include honey. 
  • A lacto vegetarian diet, which consists of plant and dairy products but excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs.
  • A lacto ovo vegetarian diet which includes products of plants, eggs, and dairy products while excluding meat, fish and poultry.
  • A semi-vegetarian diet which primarily 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 Vegetarian Food Pyramid

The basis of a healthy diet is the quality and the quantity 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 required nutrients increases when the diet excludes certain food items. A vegetarian diet pyramid formulated by the American Dietetic Association [2] helps us to learn 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. Five servings of this dietary component per day are sufficient for the body. Four servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits are recommended every day. On the top of the food pyramid are fats. No more than two servings of fat are advised.

Include Nutrients That Are Found In Lower 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 a lower quantity in a vegetarian diet. These nutrients include:

1. Vitamin B12: This nutrient is essential for the production of red blood cells, as well as neurological function and healthy DNA [3]. 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 to the diet to prevent a vitamin B12 deficiency.

2. Vitamin D: Important for strong bones as it increases the absorption of calcium. This nutrient is synthesized from sunlight, present in non-vegan food sources such as meat, eggs, and fish, and also 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. [4]

3. 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, the absorption of plant-sourced zinc is not as efficient in our body and so its consumption should be proportionately increased. [5]

4. Iron:  It is easy to get iron from plant sources — leafy greens, dried fruits, dried beans and lentils, and plenty of fortified cereals offer this nutrient. As with zinc, however, plant-based iron is absorbed less readily, and so you need more of it. If you have noticed that you feel weak, fatigued, your skin is pale, and you sometimes feel dizzy, it is a good idea to be tested for iron-deficiency anemia. [6]

5. Vitamin C: This may not strike you as a nutrient you need to be especially concerned about as a vegetarian, but it might be. If you're iron-deficient, boosting your vitamin C intake will increase your iron absorption. The water-soluble vitamin is also essential for a healthy immune system, fights damage inflicted by free radicals, and may even help prevent cancer. [7]

6. Calcium: Everybody knows that calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, but it also plays an important role in cardiovascular function, muscle strength, nerve transmission, and even the functioning of your hormones. Since milk and dairy products are the best sources of calcium, lacto-ovo vegetarians and lacto vegetarians will not need to worry so much, but if you're vegan, you will want to take steps to ensure that you are getting enough calcium through plant foods. Broccoli, kale, collard greens, and turnips are examples of vegan foods that offer plenty of calcium. [8]

7. Iodine: Iodine plays an essential role in the functioning of the thyroid, as well as being thought to contribute to immune-system functioning. Vegans, especially, are at risk of becoming deficient. The easiest solution is to consume iodized salt. [9]

Points Diet-Conscious Vegetarians Should Remember

  • 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 the added benefit of having a 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 with fibers as well as being low on 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 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 on a vegetarian diet without worries, while keeping an eye on the calorie count, for a fitter and healthier life.