Dietary trends are increasingly becoming popular. More people resort to vegetarian and vegan diets in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Nutritionist of the Nutrition Society, Sri Lanka Roshan Delabandara, explained to Health Capsule readers about vegan and vegetarian diets, its benefits and challenges.
Both vegans and vegetarians follow plant based diets, but do not consume animal meat. A plant based diet would include fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals, pulses, nuts, etc.
It is a common misconception among people that vegan and vegetarian is the same. This is not so. “Vegans consume a diet solely based on plant sources. They do not eat any animal based food products. This means that vegans will not consume eggs, milk and other dairy products including butter, cheese and yoghurt,” Delabandara explained. He further added that vegans also avoid other animal derived foods such as honey and gelatine. In short being a vegan means avoiding all foods that are products and by-products of animals.
While vegetarians also follow plant based diets, they may selectively include certain animal derived foods such as eggs, milk and other dairy products in their diets.
Types of Vegetarians
Unlike vegans, vegetarians may include foods derived from animals excluding meat. Based on their food patterns, vegetarians are classified to groups. The common classification includes Lacto-ovo vegetarians, lacto vegetarians and ovo vegetarians. Additionally there are certain groups called pollotarians, pescatarians and flexatarians.
“Lacto-ovo vegetarians, lacto vegetarians and ovo vegetarians do not eat red meat (beef, pork, mutton, etc), fish, sea food or poultry (chicken, duck, turkey, etc). Their meals are plant based. However, lacto ovo vegetarians include both dairy products as well as eggs in their diet. Most vegetarians fall under this category. Lacto vegetarians include dairy products in their diet, but they avoid eggs. Ovo vegetarians include eggs in their diet, but they avoid dairy products,” the nutritionist stressed.
There are certain types of food diets that cannot be considered entirely vegetarian so they are referred to as semi vegetarian diets. “Pollotarians and pescatarians follow semi vegetarian diets. A pollotarian consumes poultry in addition to a plant based diet. But they do not consume red meat, fish or sea food. A pescatarian consumes fish and seafood in addition to a plant based diet, but will not consume red meat or poultry. Flexatarians consume plant based diets, but they occasionally consume meat. They aren’t considered as vegetarians,” he mentioned.
Benefits of veggie diets
The nutritionist explicated that plant based diets provide good nutrition to the body. “Vegetarian diets contribute to lowering the tendencies for non-communicable diseases like diabetes. These diets are devoid of animal fats. So vegetarians and vegans are less likely to suffer from high cholesterol. This reduces the risks of strokes and heart diseases. Vegetarian diets also contribute to reducing obesity. Fruits and vegetables are especially rich in fibre. Fibre contributes to a healthy digestive systems and regulates bowel movements. Vegetarian diets help reduce risks of cancers.
When you follow vegetarian diets, meeting certain requirements regarding specific nutrients can become a problem. Your body will face the challenge of receiving adequate protein, vitamins and minerals.
“Proteins are classified as high quality and low quality proteins. High quality proteins are proteins where most of it is absorbed into the body. Low quality proteins are those where most may not be absorbed into the body. Most high quality proteins are found in animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs and milk. Eggs have the largest amounts of high quality proteins. Proteins are made up of building blocks known as amino acids. The body receives 9 essential amino acids from food. These too are received mainly from animal products such as meat, eggs, milk. We may only receive 1 or 2 essential amino acids from plant sources,” explained Delabandara.
He further stated that receiving adequate amounts of Vitamin B 12 is another vegetarian issue. Natural microbes in the gut of humans produce B 12. This is one source that vegans and vegetarians get their vitamin B12 from in addition to certain cereals and plant foods. But the use of antibiotics when sick can destroy gut bacteria causing a reduction in vitamin B 12. Vitamin B 12 is available in eggs and dairy products like milk and yoghurt. So it will be a challenge for vegans and vegetarians who don’t consume dairy products.
Minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc requirements are also hard to find in one’s diet. Iron is classified into two types; namely haem and non-haem. “Haem iron is absorbed well into the body and they are mostly present in animal sources. Non-haem iron is only absorbed in the presence of haem iron. This is why when preparing Gotu kola (Centella asiatica), Maldivian fish and lime are added. The non-haem iron in the plant will be absorbed due to the presence of the haem iron in the Maldivian fish. Lime enhances the absorption of iron,” he accentuated.
According to the nutritionist, the solution to facing the vegetarian challenges is by including variety in your vegetarian diet. Including a variety of different pulses and cereals such as gram, green gram, dhal, etc along with many vegetables and fruits daily is important. It can be clearly understood that vegans find the dietary challenge more demanding as their food choices are limited to plant sources. However vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy will find it easier to fulfill their nutrition requirements.
Approaching a healthier diet
Between a vegan and vegetarian diet, which is the better one? It depends on the person. This is a matter of choice. The choice of becoming a vegan is not easy and requires extra effort. It is challenging, but not impossible. A vegetarian diet would allow you to fulfill your nutrient requirements all the while allowing you to remain free of consuming meats. If you are thinking of approaching a veggie diet from a non-vegetarian one, being a vegetarian is the best way to start rather than becoming a vegan. “The shifting of the mode of food patterns is not easy all at once. It is better to approach the vegetarian diet step by step. First you can give up red meat, then chicken, then fish. Take it step by step. This will make the transition to a vegetarian diet easier and successful,” advised the nutritionist.