The Cons Of A Vegetarian Diet

The vegetarian diet is gaining popularity, but is it safe?

Many people these days are becoming interested in vegetarian diets for health and ethical reasons. There's a lot of evidence that a vegetarian diet, done properly, will prevent or cut your risk of getting a whole host of diseases, from heart disease to cancer. And we're always being told to eat more vegetables and grains, so why not go all the way? This diet can help people lose weight and is often less expensive than a meat-based diet.

But are there any disadvantages to a vegetarian diet, other than not being able to eat out as easily? Are there risks to going vegetarian?

Many people who don't know a lot about the vegetarian diet worry when their loved ones go vegetarian because they fear it's not possible to get good protein without meat. That isn't true; beans, rice, tofu and other grains provide plenty of protein if the diet is well-planned.

This is really the problem with a lot of vegetarians, who are often called "junk food vegetarians.†They go veggie but haven't really studied or planned what to eat instead of meat so they end up eating a lot of processed foods, maybe a lot of dairy and other things that aren't very healthful. These are the vegetarians who will get sick, gain weight and usually give up on being a vegetarian because there "isn't enough to eat.â€

People who do a little planning and experimenting before going completely veggie will find there is plenty to eat and will ultimately end up with diets having more variety than their omnivore counterparts. (How many meat eaters do you know who eat quinoa, for instance? A whole new world of food opens up to you.)

So, to return to the question, are there health risks for this kind of vegetarian, the people who plan their meals and eat a variety of good, healthful foods?

The only nutrient required by the human body that is not provided by a vegetarian diet is B12, and that's only a problem for vegans, who use no animal products of any kind. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy products, don't have this worry because B12 is found in dairy products, as well as eggs and meat.

B12 is key to a healthy nervous system; it helps with synthesis of DNA during cell division. Lack of B12 causes formation of abnormal cells, which eventually will lead to anemia.

It doesn't have to be a problem for vegans, either, if they use one of the many vegan products fortified with B-12 (such as soy milk or nutritional yeast) or take a vegan B-12 supplement. A study of people on a raw foods diet (food that is uncooked or very lightly warmed) found B-12 lacking in their bloodstreams, but a raw food diet is quite different from the vegetarian diet most people consume, so it's not likely to be a problem.

Some meat advocates say that children who are raised as vegetarians or vegans will not get enough nutrients for their bodies to grow properly, particularly iron, zinc and copper, as well as B12 and calcium. While vegan and vegetarian children tend to grow a little slower than meat-eating children, if their diets are well-planned they can be as healthy as any other children.

Studies have shown that vegetarian women of child-bearing age are more likely to miss periods than meat-eating women, and there are concerns about pregnant vegetarians and vegans not getting enough nutrients for the developing baby. Thus it is recommended that vegan and vegetarian mothers-to-be (as well as nursing moms and their children) follow diets that ensure adequate amounts of calcium, riboflavin, iron and vitamin D, with supplements if necessary, as well as supplemental B12 for vegans. Children must also be monitored from proper protein intake.

Other health risks that have been touted include an argument that the body was made to digest meat and going for a long time without eating meat could cause bacteria in the digestive system to become idle, which, theoretically, could make it easier for vegetarians to get sick.

But this theory simply doesn't seem to hold when you consider that the vast majority of vegetarians are healthier and live longer than meat eaters. Just because our bodies have evolved to eat meat does not mean it is necessary for health.

Vegan children who don't get enough sunlight could get rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, and iron-deficiency anemia is common among vegetarians and vegans. Symptoms include feeling weak or tired, fast heart beat, faintness, easily bruising, hair loss and long or heavy periods.

If you or someone you know is considering becoming a vegetarian, you might want to ease into the diet to make sure you will come up with enough meat-free meals that you will like, that are healthy and that will keep you from getting bored with the diet. The key is to get sufficient nutrients and calories from a variety of foods and to enjoy yourself along the way.

If you're worried that you might have a vitamin or nutrient deficiency, consult a doctor for blood tests and alter your diet with whole foods first rather than resorting to supplements. The body can more readily use nutrients that come from foods directly rather than in a pill. Visiting a nutritionist may also be helpful if you don't know what to eat to improve your health as a vegetarian.

Becoming a vegetarian is a big step, and it's not to be done lightly. If you precede carefully, transition slowly and wisely from omnivore to vegetarian, eat a variety of foods, experiment and have fun exploring new and different ways to eat, you should be successful and not have any of the potential health problems that can come from a vegetarian diet.

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