An article in the March 2003 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter reminds readers that, depending on the amount and types of animal-derived foods eaten, there are varying degrees of “vegetarian” diets. For example, whereas a vegan diet prohibits all animal products, a “pollo-vegetarian” diet allows chicken. A “semi-vegetarian” even eats red meat occasionally.
The article points out that, despite these nuances, all vegetarian diets emphasize plant-based foods, associated with lower body weight, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Unfortunately, although vegetarian diets offer these clear health advantages, the deficiency or absence of meat and other animal-derived foods in them raises other concerns. Consequently, prospective vegetarians should not only consult their physicians or dietitians for information but also pay special attention to three nutrients.
Protein. By no means are animals the only sources of protein. Lentils, beans, soy, nuts and nut butters, and whole-grain breads and cereals contain plenty of protein.
Iron. Beans, peas, whole-grain breads, spinach, raisins, apricots, peaches, nuts and seeds are vegetarian-friendly sources of iron. Eating them in conjunction with foods rich in vitamin C helps the body absorb their iron.
Fat. Avoiding meat does not automatically curtail your consumption of fat. If you plan on eating French fries, ice cream, whole milk, cheese and nuts, the amount of fat and calories in your diet can increase fast, so be careful with these foods.