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Vegetarianism basics

Vegetarianism is good for you

Vegetarianism has grown in popularity in the last few years and restaurants and food stores have expanded their selection of meatless dishes and products. The range of Commensal and Yves Veggie products available at Metro shows the impact of vegetarianism on our eating habits. No matter how we feel about it, we've all eaten "vegetarian" dishes like salads, cheese sandwiches or pasta with tomato sauce.

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Why Do People Become Vegetarians?

Some people are vegetarians because of their religious beliefs, others for ethical, moral, ecological or economic reasons. Still others become vegetarians to protect or improve their health. But is vegetarianism really better for you than a diet that includes meat? You be the judge.

Basic Principles

Depending on the school of vegetarianism, different foods are stressed: Whole grains (wheat, rice, corn) or grain products (pasta, bread, whole grain cereals) and fresh fruits and vegetables. Legumes, nuts, dairy products and eggs are allowed in moderation. Finally, consumption of some foods like sugar, honey, butter, alcohol and coffee is minimal.

Types of Vegetarianism

People practice various degrees of vegetarianism depending on their beliefs and willpower. Here is a summary.

Semi-vegetariansEat no read meat, but will occasionally eat poultry and fish, or only fish.
Lacto vegetariansEat dairy products, but no meat or eggs.
Ovo vegetariansEat eggs, but no meat or dairy products.
Lacto-ovo vegetariansEat eggs and dairy products, but no meat.
strict vegetarians
Eat absolutely no animal products, including honey! Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, sees and fresh or dried fruits.
MacrobioticsAn oriental-style vegetarian diet based on elements of ancient Chinese philosophy.
FruitariansEat only fresh or dried fruits, although some also eat seeds and nuts.

Vegetarianism's Benefits

  • An essential truth that cannot be stressed enough is that a poorly balanced vegetarian diet can be just as injurious to your health as a heavily meat-centred diet. Just because a food is labelled "vegetarian" doesn't mean that it's healthy. Vegetarian foods swimming in oil are anything but "healthy"!
  • Eating a balanced vegetarian diet can have definite health benefits because it stresses fruits, vegetables and grain products, and a vegetarian diet ensures significant quantities of dietary fibre and antioxidants like vitamin C, which are known to help fight various diseases, such as heart disease and certain cancers. However, a balanced regular diet (i.e. non-vegetarian) that includes fruit, vegetable and whole grain products every day can be just as helpful in fighting disease.
  • Some people believe that it's easier to control one's fat intake with a vegetarian diet because it's meat-free. This is true if the diet includes only limited quantities of eggs and dairy products since they are high in fat. The chief rule to a healthy, balanced diet, vegetarian or regular, is to eat a wide variety of foods in moderation.
  • Isolating the benefits resulting solely from a vegetarian diet is difficult because most vegetarians have a very healthy lifestyle, shunning alcohol, tobacco, sometimes even coffee and tea. The benefits noted in various studies of vegetarianism cannot be attributed solely to a meat-free diet but to the overall lifestyle.
Vegetarianism's Benefits

Vegetarianism's Risks

Practising vegetarianism wisely requires a reasonable knowledge of the subject. Becoming a vegetarian doesn't just mean eliminating meat from one's diet but changing one's eating habits. Some people mistakenly believe that they've got fat beat because they avoid meat completely while eating large quantities of pastries, cakes and oil.

  • Vegetarians run a greater risk of iron, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin A and D deficiencies, especially vegans and others who eat no dairy products. These deficiencies can lead to various health problems such as anemia.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency can even result in developmental delay in children. So knowledge of nutritional needs is essential to ensure a well-balanced diet, especially for children and pregnant women. These two groups may need to take dietary supplements to guard against such deficiencies.

Put Tofu on the Menu!

Made from soymilk, tofu is rich in high-quality protein. But compared to meat, tofu has two times less protein, less fat and no cholesterol.

  • Tofu is a good source however of essential fatty acids. There is a lot of talk about tofu's benefits from the phytoestrogens it contains, inactive substances similar to estrogens produced by the ovaries and that intestinal flora turn into active estrogens. They are found in linseed as well as in soybeans, where they are present as isoflavones.
  • According to various studies, isoflavones could reduce menopausal hot flashes and help keep bones and arteries strong and healthy. These benefits can be obtained only through regular consumption of soybean products (tofu, soymilk). Enriched soymilk (calcium, zinc, vitamins B2 and B12) and tofu with calcium (calcium sulphate) deliver maximum nutrients.
  • Meat delivers complete protein, so foods containing vegetable proteins, such as tofu, are a vegetarian's best friends. Nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy products and eggs are excellent sources of protein.
Put Tofu on the Menu!

Combining Proteins

Combining Proteins

Unlike animal protein, no vegetable protein contains all 8 essential amino acids, so-called because they cannot be produced by the body but have to be obtained from the food we eat. That is why the theory of "protein complementarity" was developed, whereby various foods from plant sources are combined to complete amino acids. It is widely accepted nowadays, but it does not have to be strictly applied to each meal, except for children and pregnant women.

People who eat a balanced and varied diet will automatically get their recommended daily allowance of protein. Proteins from dairy products, seeds and nuts, legumes and grains are complementary. Two examples of complementary combinations are a slice of bread (grain) spread with peanut butter (legume) or pasta (grain) with cheese (dairy product).

Variety is key

Eating more fruit, vegetable, complete grains and legumes is good for everyone, not just vegetarians. These foods provide many vitamins and minerals that help maintain good health. Variety is the key to a healthy diet. Even meat-eaters should consider adding lentils, tofu or chickpeas to their diet as a great way to increase their intake of dietary fibre and reduce their fat intake.

There are good vegetarian diets just as there are bad ones. Whatever a person's diet, the important thing is to get enough food energy, proteins, carbohydrates and fat.

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