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How healthy is a vegetarian diet?

May 19th, 2009 · No Comments

The health benefits of a vegetarian diet. How to avoid missing out on important nutrients

Vegetarian eating can be very healthy. New research comparing the health of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, for instance, says that vegetarians have 30 per cent less heart disease and 40 per cent less cancer than non-vegetarians. Vegetarians are also less likely to have high blood pressure and tend to have lower levels of cholesterol too.

What is it about a vegetarian diet that can make people healthier? Doctors still don’t know all the answers but one reason may be because vegetarians usually eat more vegetables, fruit, grains and cereals than other people. Besides providing plenty of fibre, vitamins and minerals that help prevent disease, these foods are also low in fat. Another reason may be because vegetarians often have a healthier way of life - many of them don’t smoke or drink alcohol.

There’s nothing new about vegetarian food - in many parts of the world it’s a traditional way of eating. Traditional dishes such as dried peas, beans or lentils with rice and other grains, bread with humus, bean curd with rice or noodles, pasta with vegetable sauces have been adopted by many Australians who want a healthy - and tasty - alternative to meals based on meat.

But as more people turn to vegetarian food for either moral or health reasons, it’s important to know how to plan vegetarian meals properly to get the right nutrients for good health.

Nutritionists are concerned that many teenage girls who have become vegetarians (often to try and lose weight) get so little iron in their diet that they may develop anaemia - this is a condition which causes lack of energy and fatigue and can make people more susceptible to infection.

For most people in Australia, meat is a good way to get enough iron. But to get enough iron from plant foods, vegetarians need to eat plenty of dried peas, beans and lentils, wholegrain breads, nuts, seeds and pastes made from nuts and seeds such as tahini and peanut butter, breakfast cereals with added iron, and leafy green vegetables.

Good ways to help the body get as much iron from these foods as possible is to eat a food containing vitamin C at the same time (eg oranges, orange juice, tomatoes, capsicums, parsley) or a fermented soy food such as miso or tempeh. It’s also better not to drink tea or coffee at the same time as you eat these foods - these drinks make it harder for you to absorb iron.

Albhough many vegetarians include cheese, yoghurt and milk in their diet, some types of vegetarians avoid all foods which come from animals. Because dairy foods contain the calcium needed for healthy bones, vegetarians who don’t eat them should eat other foods containing calcium such as almonds, canned fish with small, edible bones, tahini, bok choy, broccoli, dried figs, tofu and soy milk with added calcium. Vegetarians who avoid dairy products and eggs may not get enough of the vitamin B12 - another good way to get this is by drinking fortified soy milk.

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