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VegetarianismVegetarianism

It is not long ago that vegetarians were figures of fun, commonly characterized as cranks, but there is a growing awareness that a vegetarian diet can have beneficial effects on health.

At times, it seems that there are almost as many reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet as there are vegetarians. Some, of course, simply dislike the taste or appearance of meat; other people's motives may be spiritual, social, ecological, economic, ethical, emotional or medical.

WHY NOT EAT MEAT ?

For some people, a vegetarian diet is a matter of religious or cultural beliefs. For others it's a question of making a more efficient use of limited natural resources; animal husbandry is a profligate use of land compared with raising crops.

Some people, especially in developing countries, are vegetarians because that's all they can afford. In the developed world, most vegetarians avoid meat because they are distressed by the idea of animals being slaughtered to provide it, or by the way the animals are treated while alive. Finally, there are those who have given up meat, fish and poultry on the grounds that a vegetarian diet is physically healthier.

LACTO, OVO AND VEGAN

There are several subtle shades of vegetarianism. Some vegetarians are not strictly vegetarian at all, but will occasionally eat fish or fowl. Those who don't eat flesh, but happily tuck into eggs and dairy produce, are known as 'lacto-ovo' (literally 'milk-egg') vegetarians.

'Lacto' vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, on the grounds that eggs are embryos and therefore flesh. They might also avoid cheese made in the traditional way using animal rennet, which is taken from the stomach lining of calves.

Strictest of all are vegans, who avoid all animal products, not only for food but for clothing, and may also avoid honey and yeast.

VEGETARIANISM AND HEALTH

A properly balanced vegetarian diet can have health advantages. Because vegetables tend to be bulkier and lower in calories than meat products, vegetarians in general, and vegans in particular, are much less susceptible to obesity than omnivores (people who eat a wide range of plant and animal foods). Vegetarians also eat much more fibre, guarding against constipation and intestinal diseases.

Other conditions improved or even cured in some cases by a vegetarian diet include infantile eczema, childhood asthma, acne and, in adults, hypertension (high blood pressure), blood clots, diabetes, circulatory problems, angina and migraine.

HELPING THE HEART
The greatest health benefit of a vegetarian diet, though, is the avoidance or alleviation of a number of heart diseases, which are closely connected, statistically at least, with diets rich-in fats and particularly in 'saturated' fats (those with a high concentration of hydrogen atoms). Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products.

The connection can be seen in primitive vegetarian communities, where heart disease is virtually unknown, and also in vital statistics from Europe. Scandinavians eat a high proportion of animal fat, and have a correspondingly high incidence of heart disease. People in southern Italy who eat a good deal of vegetable oils, but little in the way of animal fat, have the lowest incidence.

STRIKING A BALANCE
Whatever their reason for giving up meat, the great majority of vegetarians tend to be more conscious about getting a healthy, balanced diet than omnivores. Planning a sensible vegetarian diet requires thought and care, especially to get the right balance of proteins. Plenty of plant foods are high in protein - cereals, nuts, mushrooms, potatoes and oil seeds for instance - but sometimes it is not the right protein.

All proteins are made up of combinations of chemicals called amino acids. While animal proteins usually contain all the amino acids required by humans, the majority of plant proteins are simpler, 'incomplete' structures, made up of just a few amino acids.

COMPLETE COMBINATIONS
However, you can get a high quality complete protein by combining certain plant foods. For example, most cereals and pulses (beans, peas and lentils) complement each other. Simple meals such as beans on toast or rice and lentils contain protein as high in quality as red meats.

A vegetarian diet may also be lacking in important nutrients, notably iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, all of which are plentiful in animal products.

MINERALS
Though iron is present in many vegetables, it is often more difficult to absorb than iron from animal sources, though the body will eventually adapt by making more efficient use of what's available. Eating foods which are rich in vitamin C helps this process.

Calcium is freely available in milk and eggs, but obtaining sufficient supplies can be difficult for vegans. Pregnant and lactating vegans may be prescribed a calcium supplement.

Diets with a lot of cereal fibre can make it more difficult to absorb calcium, iron and zinc, but this is likely to have little effect unless these particular minerals are already in short supply.

VITAL VITAMINS
Vitamin D, particularly important for the proper growth of the bones in children, is largely absent in plant foods, though it is plentiful in milk and dairy products. However, people can make this vitamin by the action of sunlight on the skin.

Vitamin D deficiency can occur in children reared on a vegan diet if they are not exposed to enough sunlight, and they may need a food supplement in the winter. An alternative is to use a vegetable margarine fortified with the vitamin.

A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to serious, though fortunately rare, conditions, including spinal ataxia (causing poor balance, stooped posture and loss of sensation in the legs) and megaloblastic anaemia (a deficiency in the blood).

Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods or micro-organisms. Vegetarians get all they need from dairy products, but the only natural source for vegans is vegetables old enough to have a growth of mould on them. Fortunately, the vitamin is generally available in tablet form.

GOING VEGETARIAN
If you decide to switch to a vegetarian diet, try to do so slowly and carefully. Any sudden, radical change to your diet can be a shock to the system. Always consult your doctor, or a dietitian, before you significantly alter the amount or type of food that you eat.

Becoming vegetarian may have unexpected effects unless you make the change gradually. You may find that the extra fibre you eat in a vegetarian diet will leave you feeling uncomfortably bloated at first, and you may lack energy for a while until your body adjusts.

     
     

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