Just 50 years ago vegetarians were considered food fanatics. And now, nearly 5 million Americans follow a vegetarian eating pattern. Health experts and much of society view vegetarian diets as an acceptable and healthy way of life.
In fact, for the past 20 years, medical research has focused on vegetarian diets for disease prevention and treatment. While there are many positive effects of a vegetarian diet, there are also many nutritional risks to consider.
With varying philosophies, practices and beliefs, being vegetarian is different for many people. Some eat certain types of meat, and some don't eat any meat at all; some eat certain dairy products while others don't. For some, being vegetarian is not just a diet, but it is also a way of life, carefully choosing products such as cosmetics, medications and clothing that do not contain any animal products.
Before 1960, there were very few published studies on the health effects of vegetarian diets. As Americans became more concerned about the environment, animal rights and world hunger the vegetarian movement gained momentum, spiking an increase in studies, research and published theories and findings regarding vegetarian diets.
Compared to traditional diets, vegetarian diets are lower in calories and fat and higher in complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Consistently, these types of diets have been associated with lower incidences of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, fewer deaths from heart disease and reduced risk of certain cancers. Many world and national health organizations recognize diet as a controllable factor for chronic disease and promote a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
Very few vegetarians experience nutrition deficiencies, but research states that they are more likely to occur in vegetarian diets than nonvegetarian diets. Restricting certain foods, whether it is meat or dairy, can reduce the amounts of vitamins and minerals available to the body: iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, B6 and B12. Deficiencies of these can lead to digestive disorders, neurological damage, anemia, low energy levels, lower bone density, malnutrition and a weakened immune system.
Food influences your health and well-being. When vegetarian meals are carefully planned, they can meet nutrition requirements. Adopting a vegetarian diet may be beneficial in helping to reduce your health risks, but there are many types of nonvegetarian diets that work just as well. Consider your lifestyle, your food preferences and your health goals, and find what works best for you.
Missy Corrigan is executive of community health for Sumter Family YMCA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 773-1404.
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