Dear Dr. Sangani,

I have been trying hard to make a lifestyle change, mainly related to my diet. I want to lose weight and lower my cholesterol. The vegetarian diet seems to be a healthy way to eat, but will it give my body the nutrition it needs? I know you are a vegetarian. Can you tell me more and how to get started? – Wanting to Veg-Out

Dear Wanting to Veg-Out,

My choice of being vegetarian started as a cultural heritage and then transformed into a choice based on knowledge. With the low-carb diet fad sweeping the country, it is hard to sell the vegetarian diet concept. Surprisingly, vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular. In 1994, 12.4 million people in the United States were vegetarians as compared to an estimate of 6.5 million in 1985. Vegetarian diets vary according to the degree of avoidance of foods of animal origin.

A vegetarian diet consists of grains, peas and beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit. Some vegetarians eat eggs, milk, and milk products. Vegetarians avoid meat, fowl, fish, or any byproduct such as animal fats or gelatin.

Vegans avoid all flesh and meat products, including milk, eggs, and dairy products and eat only plant-based foods. By using the vegetarian food pyramid, you can maintain a healthy balanced diet by eating foods from all the food groups.

Q: Is it difficult being a vegetarian?

A: Vegetarian food is widely available in most shops and restaurants. The food is easy to cook and provides the nutrients you need.

Q: What is the vegetarian food pyramid? 

A: The vegetarian food pyramid is a simple guideline to help plan a healthy and balanced vegetarian meal. At the bottom of the pyramid is bread, rice, cereal, and pasta and the recommended amount is 6-11 servings daily. Vegetables are next in the food pyramid and 3-5 servings are recommended daily. Two to four servings of fruit are recommended daily. Beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat substitutes are recommended 2-3 servings daily. Milk, yogurt, and cheese servings are 2-3 daily. Fats, oils, and sweets, which is at the top of the pyramid, are used sparingly. No one food group is more important than the other. To maintain good health, you need them all.

Q: Will the vegetarian diet provide all the essential nutrients?

A: Vegans should pay special attention to their vitamin B12 and vitamin D intake by eating fortified foods or taking supplements. Plant sources of protein can provide all the protein required by vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarian diets are higher in total iron content than non-vegetarian diets. However, iron reserves are lower in vegetarians because the iron from plant foods is less well-absorbed. Iron deficiency anemia rates are similar in vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

Q: What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet? 

A: The American Dietetic Association reports that vegetarians often have lower morbidity and mortality rates from chronic degenerative diseases. Vegetarian diets offer disease protection benefits because of their lower saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein content, and often higher concentration of folate – which reduces serum homocysteine levels. Mortality from coronary artery disease is lower in vegetarians.

Vegetarians have a lower incidence of hypertension, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, lung, and colorectal cancer. Fewer vegetarians than meat-eaters are overweight. That doesn’t mean avoiding meat is the key to weight control. In the Adventist Health Study, with more than 34,000 participants, 29% were vegetarian and compared to the non-vegetarians, had 50% of the high blood pressure and diabetes and 50% of colon cancer cases. Additionally, two-thirds had rheumatoid arthritis and prostate cancer.