Q: Are there health risks associated with a vegetarian diet? - H.C., Grovetown
A: The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that the number of vegetarians in the United States is growing. There are a variety of vegetarian diets, ranging from those that allow no meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy products to those that simply avoid red meat.
It is estimated that nearly 5 million Americans have adopted vegetarian diets that permit no meat, poultry or fish. Most are Asians who live in the northeastern United States or on the West Coast.
Benefits of a vegetarian diet, according to the University of California, Berkeley, include a reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers. Dr. Neal Barnard's book, Foods That Fight Pain, suggests that a vegetarian diet can relieve arthritis, back and migraine pain.
Potential health risks include vitamin B-12 and iron deficiency, both of which can be avoided with proper planning.
Followers of the strictest form of vegetarianism are known as vegans. They include only grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in their diets.
Vegetarian diets are not for everyone. Those with especially high nutritional needs should consult a physician before following a strict vegetarian diet. Children, pregnant women and those recovering from an illness or surgery should consult their physicians about special dietary needs.
The American Dietetic Association recommends that maintains that the challenge in a vegetarian diet lies in getting the amino acids and proteins that animal products supply. Vegetarians should be sure to include supplements of calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B-12 and vitamin D in their diet to ensure that they get the amino acids and protein that animal products supply.
To supply the body with protein, vegetarians can eat dried beans and peas, soy products, nuts and seeds. Dark-green leafy vegetables and soy milk provide non-diary sources of calcium. Enriched cereals and grain products can provide the body with iron.
According to Lisa Hark of the Heart Info Network, vegetarian diets can benefit those with heart disease. Animal products provide a substantial source of fat and cholesterol in the diet. Without these products, patients are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, which contribute to good heart health.
A personalized vegetarian diet should be planned along with your physician or a qualified nutritionist.
There are many products on the market to make vegetarian diets tasty and convenient. If you are reluctant to cut out meat altogether, start slowly. Cut out meat from one meal per day. After a few weeks, cut out meat from two meals per day, gradually moving toward meatless meals.
The most important part of any nutritional plan is to eat a variety of foods every day. Follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Pyramid to select healthy foods to supplement your meals. Use sugars and fats sparingly and eat more grains, fruits and vegetables to obtain optimal health.
If you have a question or would like more information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.