Vegetarian Diets; the Pluses and the Pitfalls

By Farley, Dixie | FDA Consumer, May 1992 | Go to article overview

Vegetarian Diets; the Pluses and the Pitfalls

Farley, Dixie, FDA Consumer

Many people are attracted to vegetarian diets. It's no wonder.

Health experts for years have been telling us to eat more plant foods and less fat, especially saturated fat, which is found in larger amounts in animal foods than plant foods.

C. Everett Koop, M.D., former surgeon general of the Public Health Service, in his 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, expressed major concern about Americans' "disproportionate consumption of foods high in fats, often at the expense of foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber-such as vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products-that may be more conducive to health."

And, while guidelines from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services advise 2 to 3 daily servings of milk and the same of foods such as dried peas and beans, eggs, meat, poultry and fish, they recommend 3 to 5 servings of vegetables, 2 to 4 of fruits, and 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta-in other words, I I to 20 plant foods, but only 4 to 6 animal foods.

It's wise to take precautions, however, when adopting diets that entirely exclude animal fresh or dairy products.

"The more you restrict your diet, the more difficult it is to get all the nutrients you need," says Marilyn Stephenson, R.D., of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "To be healthful, vegetarian diets require very careful, proper planning. Nutrition counseling can help you get started on a diet that is nutritionally adequate."

Certain people, such as Seventh-day Adventists, choose a vegetarian diet because of religious beliefs. Others give up meat because they feel that eating animals is unkind. Some people believe it's a better use of the Earth's resources to eat low on the food chain; the North American Vegetarian Society notes that 1.3 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans eaten by U.S. livestock. On the practical side, many people eat plant foods because animal foods are more expensive.

"I'm a vegetarian because I just plain enjoy the taste of vegetables and pasta," says Judy Folkenberg of Bethesda, Md. Reared on a vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy products, Folkenberg added fish to her diet five years ago. "I love crab cakes and shrimp," she says.

Just as vegetarians differ in their motivation, their diets differ as well. (See box on next page.) In light of these variations, it's not surprising that the exact number of vegetarians is unknown. In a National Restaurant Association Gallup Survey in June 1991, 5 percent of respondents said they were vegetarians, yet 2 percent said they never ate milk or cheese products, 3 percent never ate red meat, and 10 percent never ate eggs. Risks

Vegetarians who abstain from dairy products or animal flesh face the greatest nutritional risks because some nutrients naturally occur mainly or almost exclusively in animal foods.

Vegans, who eat no animal foods (and, rarely, vegetarians who eat no animal flesh but do eat eggs or dairy products), risk vitamin [B.sub.12 ]deficiency, which can result in irreversible nerve deterioration. The need for vitamin [B.sub.12 ]increases during pregnancy, breast-feeding, and periods of growth, according to Johanna Dwyer, D.Sc., R.D., of Tufts University Medical School and the New England Medical Center Hospital, Boston. Writing in 1988 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dwyer reviewed studies of the previous five years and concluded that elderly people also should be especially cautious about adopting vegetarian diets because their bodies may absorb vitamin B12 poorly.

Ovo-vegetarians, who eat eggs but no dairy foods or animal flesh, and vegans may have inadequate vitamin D and calcium. Inadequate vitamin D may cause rickets in children, while inadequate calcium can contribute to risk of osteoporosis in later years. These vegetarians are susceptible to iron deficiency anemia because they are not only missing the more readily absorbed iron from animal flesh, they are also likely to be eating many foods with constituents that inhibit iron absorption-soy protein, bran, and fiber, for instance. …

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