In vegetarianism theory or practice of living solely depends upon vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts, generally for ethical, ascetic, or nutritional reasons. Meat, fowl, and fish are excluded from all vegetarian diets, but some vegetarians use milk and milk products; those in the modern West usually eat eggs also, but most vegetarians in India exclude them, as did those in the classical Mediterranean lands.
A meatless diet will not cure any ailments, but it may protect you from some. In particular, a typical vegetarian diet-low in fat, cholesterol and calories-can reduce your blood cholesterol level, thus helping to lower the risk of heart disease. The vegetarian approach can also help you shed extra pounds-and keep them off. Vegetarians are less likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure. And many of the compounds that scientists are isolating from vegetables may even protect against certain forms of cancer.
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Vegetarianism is, at bottom, a misnomer. Even the strictest vegetarians typically eat more than vegetables per se, indulging fruits, nuts, beans and just about anything else not derived from animals. Other vegetarians add dairy products and eggs. In practice, vegetarians fall into the following major categories: Vegans, the most dedicated vegetarians, eat exclusively plant products, and no meat diary, or fish products at all. Lactovegetarians also eat dairy products, but not eggs, meat, or fish.Ovolactovegetarians include both eggs and dairy products in the menu, but no meat or fish. There are a number of individual variations on these themes. Some vegetarians (dubbed 'fruitarians') eat only raw fruits, sometimes supplemented with vegetables and nuts. Others may be part-time vegetarians; or may eat no red meat, but include white meat such as chicken or fish in their diet. Some vegetarian diets restrict products such as alcohol, sugar, caffeine or processed foods.
Although the benefits of a low-fat, high-fibre, vitamin-rich diet are not restricted to vegetarianism, the type of menu that vegetarians favour can promote health in a number of ways, reducing the risk of heart disease, liver and gallbladder disease, cataracts and stroke. Many studies have found a link between reduced cancer rates and diets rich in fruits, vegetables and grains; the American Cancer Society recommends five or more servings of fruits and vegetables and six or more servings or grain (bread, cereal, rice, pasta) daily. As scientists delve into the specific components of the foods we eat, they are finding an array of so-called 'phytochemicals' that protect good health and fend off disease. Plant products are especially rich in these compounds, and though you do not have to be a vegetarian to gain their benefits, it is clear that an all-vegetarian diet is likely to provide them in greater than usual quantities. In addition to vitamins, minerals, and fibre, other beneficial compounds that you can gain from liberal helpings of vegetables include the following: sulforaphane, found in broccoli, has a role in neutralizing enzymes that may trigger cancer. Glucobrassicin occurs naturally in all cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, bok choy and kale). This substance seems to help the body form indoles, a class of compounds that may have a role in preventing breast and other cancers. Beta-carotene, found in orange or dark green vegetables, is an antioxidant that has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and hardening of the arteries. Liberal intake of this substances may also discourage development of cataracts. Other carotenoids found in dark green, leafy vegetables have been associated with a decreased risk of age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in older adults. Potassium has been linked to reduced risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Bananas, spinach, and potatoes are excellent sources of potassium. Beans, grapefruit, peppers, squash, grapes, and apples also contain significant supplies. Phytate and protease inhibitors, both thought to have a role in cancer prevention, are found in beans. Beans are also an excellent source of fibre and a high-fibre diet is associated with low cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of colon cancer. Allicin is one of the several ingredients in garlic and onions that seem to protect against heart disease by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and discouraging blood clots. Allicin may also help prevent cancer.Isoflavones, one of a set of compounds called flavonoids, has cancer-inhibiting properties. Among the foods rich in isoflavones are green tea and soybean products such as tofu and tempeh. Just as a vegetarian diet can promote health with the foods it includes, it may also prove beneficial through what it omits. An increasing body of evidence implicates excessive intake of meat and dairy products in a variety of ailments. One six-year study of women found that those who ate red meat every day had twice the risk of developing breast cancer as those who ate none. Similar results appeared in studies of heart disease and lung, colon, and prostate cancer. High-fat dairy products have long been regarded as leading contributors to heart disease and cancer. The high protein content in a meat-rich diet can aggravate kidney disease. Even rheumatoid arthritis is sometimes alleviated by a vegetarian diet. All the health benefits of a diet high in fibre and low in fat are quite independent of any moral considerations. Ethical vegetarians reject meat because they believe no animal lives should be taken to satisfy human appetites. Certain religions-Hinduism in particular-also discourage consumption of meat. But for many people, religious or ethical concern for animals has no bearing on their choice of vegetarianism. For them, it is simply a matter of health.
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The American Dietetic Association has declared that vegetarian diets can he healthy and nutritionally complete when properly planned. However, it is unwise to be too restrictive with children under two years of age; they need liberal amounts of the essential fatty acids found primarily in meat. Likewise, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it is advisable to consult a dietician to make sure your vegetarian diet is as complete and balanced as possible.
With its limited selection of foods, vegetarianism poses a risk of several nutritional deficiencies. The greatest threat is a lack of Vitamin B12, which occurs naturally only in animal products. Inadequate supplies, can cause anemia and raise homocysteine levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. Also at risk, especially in dark northern climates, is the supply of Vitamin D, which comes from sunlight and fortified milk. The Vitamin D-deficiency disease rickets has been found in young children on a vegetarian diet. To prevent such problems, most experts recommend that strict vegetarians supplement their diet with a daily multivitamin pill. Under ordinary circumstances, a varied vegetarian diet supplies sufficient iron. However, if you are pregnant, have heavy menstrual bleeding, or suffer from iron deficiency, you may need to take a supplement. A strict vegetarian diet can also leave you short of the calcium needed to prevent the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis. Although some studies have found increased bone density in vegetarians, this finding may have been due to exercise rather than diet. If you have passed menopause and need liberal amounts of calcium, you may want to consider taking supplements of this mineral as well. To maintain fully balanced nutrition, vegetarians must look for alternate sources of the nutrients that others get from meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. While it was once thought that a vegetarian diet could not supply sufficient protein, it is now known that a combination of vegetable products can provide all the building blocks of protein that we need, including the eight essential amino acids the body cannot manufacture on its own. To assure an adequate supply, however, you need liberal amounts of vegetable protein from sources such as beans and soy products. It is also important to get generous amounts of starches from whole grains, fruits and vegetables; oils low in saturated fats; and nuts and seeds.