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What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet is defined as one that includes no meat, poultry or seafood — and sometimes no eggs or dairy products either. Many people describe themselves as vegetarians because they avoid red meat and/or poultry while continuing to eat fish. This isn’t a true vegetarian diet but names have been coined for these diets such as ‘semi-vegetarian’, ‘flexitarian’, ‘pescetarian’ and ‘aquavore’.

There are three main types of vegetarian diet:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet – a plant-based diet that includes eggs and dairy products
  • Lacto-vegetarian diet – a plant-based diet that includes dairy foods but not eggs
  • Vegan diet – a diet based on plant foods alone and includes no products derived from animals.

Can a vegetarian diet be healthy?

Recently the American Dietetic Association released a position paper in support of vegetarian eating, saying:

“[A]ppropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” (ADA, 2009)

The position paper also says that a vegetarian diet may lead to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure, decreasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians also tend to have lower overall cancer rates compared to those eating non-vegetarian diets.

It’s important to remember that the ADA is talking about well-planned vegetarian diets. Like any other diet, a badly-planned vegetarian diet can still be high in fat. There are plenty of unhealthy foods that can be classified as vegetarian including chips, chocolate, ice cream, vegetarian pies and pasties and deep fried spring rolls.

Can vegetarians miss out on important nutrients?

A vegetarian diet that includes eggs and cheese is less likely to be in low in protein or calcium, but may miss out on iron and zinc. However, eating plenty of meals based on legumes and including nuts and seeds should ensure sufficient iron and zinc intake, as well as protein.

Vegans who avoid all animal products risk a deficiency of vitamin B12, which is found only in significant amounts in animal food products, and omega-3 fatty acids found mainly in fish. However, foods fortified with these nutrients (eg cereals and soy milk fortified with vitamin B12), vitamin B12 supplements and omega-3 fatty acid supplements would provide these nutrients. There are now omega-3 supplements available that are derived from plants, not fish.

Further information

The Dietitians' Association of Australia www.daa.asn.au

Sources

American Dietetic Association (ADA). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jul 2009; 109(7): 1266–1282.

Better Health Channel. Vegetarian eating. [online] Melbourne, VIC: State Government of Victoria. c1999-2010 [updated May 2010, accessed 2 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vegetarian_eating?open

Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). Vegetarian diets. [online] Deakin, ACT: DAA. [updated 27 Aug 2008, accessed 2 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.daa.asn.au/

Key TJ, Davey GK, Appleby PN. Health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 1999; 58(2): 271–275.

Mann JI. Optimizing the plant-based diet. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000; 9(Suppl): S60–64.

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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Last published 31 October 2010