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What they don’t tell you about a vegetarian diet

Most people have the misconception that all vegetarian food is healthy. Just as meat-eaters need to minimise red meat intake, vegetarians too need to limit the intake of some edibles, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 22, 2008 02:34 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Now that Brad Pitt and Pamela Anderson have given vegetarianism a pop status and placed it high on the to-do list of many star-trackers, the number of people gnawing on lettuce instead of a chicken leg keeps growing by the day. There’s no doubt that vegetarianism is a healthy dietary option that helps you cut back on heart-damaging saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as calories, provided, of course, that you control your dairy intake.

Most people have the misconception that all vegetarian food is healthy. Just as meat-eaters need to minimise red meat intake, vegetarians need to limit the amount of butter, milk and cheese to keep their weight and risk of heart disease in check. Vegetarians also need to ensure they get enough calcium, but from low-fat (skimmed milk and yoghurt, not butter, ghee and cheeses alone) dairy sources.

There’s yet another rider. Vegetarians need to eat a wide variety of grains, legumes, greens and fruits to ensure they get adequate amounts of essential aminoacids and vitamins. Meats are a rich source of protein, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin A, D and B12, so the vegetarians need to ensure that they get these from plant sources to prevent their deficiency in the body.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is three times more common in vegetarian teenagers compared with non-vegetarians, reported a British Medical Journal study after surveying children, adolescents and women. Since low iron levels in the blood increases the body’s iron-binding capacity, thus favouring higher absorption, a diet rich in iron quickly makes up for a shortfall.

The rising popularity of processed food has made vitamin B-complex deficiency fairly common, especially among vegetarians deprived of Vitamin B12 found in meats. Since processing and polishing of grains such as wheat and rice leads to the loss of B-complex, people need to include wheatgerm and wholegrains in their diet. The B-complex vitamins are essential for all body processes, from biochemical reactions such as making enzymes, to good immunity, digestion, hair, skin and vision.

Making up for nutrients lost is not difficult, but you may need to revise your shopping list. Here’s what to look for:

Iron: Iron found in eggs, wholegrains, green vegetables, legumes, tomatoes, tofu, lentils, chickpeas and nuts is not as easily absorbed as that found in meats, so have it with vitamin C (lemon juice, orange juice) to boost its absorption. Tannins in tea and coffee also reduce iron absorption, so avoid them with or after meals.

Vitamin B Complex, particularly B12: Found only in animal products such as milk, nuts and fermented food (marmite), Vitamin B12 supplements should be taken by all vegetarians.

Vitamin D: Apart from sunlight (ultraviolet rays trigger vitamin D synthesis in the skin), the only other sources are foods like eggs, milk and fish. Vitamin D deficiency is common even in sunny India, and if prolonged, it can cause rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Take vitamin D supplements if you don’t get enough sun.

Zinc: Since meat and seafood are rich sources of zinc, vegetarians should take care to eat adequate amounts of milk, nuts, eggs, spinach, onions, potatoes, carrots and cereals.