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Switching to a plant-based diet

Back in the '70s, it was not unusual for people to give you an eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising reaction if you told them you were a vegetarian. Worse, some would even ask you suspiciously if you were part of some religious cult. I should know. I was a vegetarian back then.

My family humored me, but friends secretly thought I was little strange. It didn't help my reputation any that I was also doing yoga. However, I didn't become a vegetarian for spiritual or ethical reasons, as most people did then. I just wanted to get healthy.

Today, though, more people are interested in becoming vegetarians for the same reasons that I was - improving their health. If you are one of those people, you may be confused as to how to start. You may be worried that you may not get enough nutrients. Here is a guide to eating the vegetarian way.

Different kinds of vegetarians.
The strict definition of a vegetarian is a person who only eats vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts. In vegetarian lingo, such a person is known as a vegan.

A lactovegetarian eats dairy products plus vegetables, fruits, and grains. An ovovegetarian eats eggs plus veggies. A lacto-ovovegetarian includes both dairy products and eggs in their daily diet. A pescetarian mixes fish and seafood with their fruits and vegetables.

Then there is the nouveau vegetarian who eats a plant-based diet where fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are the main attraction while chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs, and meat play supporting roles. (However, in the real sense, vegetarians are called such because they respect life and are against the killing of animals.)

Why go vegetarian?
There are philosophical and ecological reasons some people have chosen this lifestyle. Studies have shown that a vegetarian diet has positive effects on the mind and emotions.

In the last fifteen years, there has been overwhelming evidence that a plant-based diet may be the most healthful diet of all. In a review of over 206 epidemiological studies (epidemiology is the study of lifestyles) and 22 animal studies, The Journal of the American Dietetic Association proclaimed that more fruits and vegetables in the diet gave a protective effect against cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lung, pancreas, colon, and endometrium. They found that fruits and vegetables also had a beneficial effect on other health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke and heart disease.

Getting enough protein in a vegan diet.
The biggest worry people have in becoming vegetarian is whether they will get enough protein. Its true, animal products are the most protein dense but vegetables, grains, and legumes have a fair amount too.

Before, plant protein was supposedly incomplete. To make sure the proteins "complemented" each other to become complete, a vegetarian then had to combine specific foods within a meal (like always eat beans with rice).

However, this is an old theory. It has now been discovered that the body has an amino acid pool. The amino acids from the mongo soup you eat at lunch, for instance, can mix with the amino acids of the rice you eat at dinner to combine into the complete amino acids your body needs.

What about calcium?
Many plant foods contain calcium though dairy products are still the best sources of calcium. You would need to eat a large volume of tofu, broccoli, kale, and almonds to make up for just one glass of skim milk.

Vegetarians are well advised to take calcium supplements if they do not eat dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt. An interesting fact is that studies have indicated that vegans have a lower risk of osteoporosis than non-vegetarians do but scientists speculate that this is because vegans eat less protein. Too much protein can interfere with the absorption of calcium.

Iron
A menstruating woman needs 15 milligrams of iron a day to keep her from being anemic. It can be a challenge to get enough iron from a plant-based diet if you do not eat the right plant foods. Good sources of iron are dried beans and peas, nuts, dried fruits (especially prunes and figs), and spinach. Egg yolks are also a good source for an ovovegetarian. Eating plant foods rich in iron together with a food high in Vitamin C increases the iron absorption of the body. A multi-vitamin with iron is a wise decision.

The only vitamin not available in plants.
Vitamin B12 or cobalamin is the only vitamin not available in plants. The manufacturers of dry cereal usually fortify their products with Vitamin B12 so that is one food source you can check out. Again, a daily multivitamin supplement is the answer to guard against not enough Vitamin B12 even though the body can store it for years and deficiencies are rare.

Switching from a meat-based to a plant-based diet.
It can be difficult switching from a meat-based diet to a vegetable-based one. Some people try to soften the blow by using soy or gluten to imitate meat. But, let's face it, soy or gluten are poor substitutes in the taste and texture department. You may find yourself longing for the "real thing". If you truly love meat, consider becoming a nouveau vegetarian. Lessen the amount of meat you eat on a daily basis and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables. Enjoy a good steak or lamb chop when the opportunity arises, but make those times an exception rather than the rule.

If are truly committed to making the switch, do it slowly. Not only will you have more success if you change your diet a bit at a time, but your intestinal tract will also get used to the large amounts of fiber in plant products. Otherwise, you can end up with a severe and painful case of gas.

Becoming a vegetarian to lose weight.
Many people want to become vegetarians because they have heard that you lose weight if you don't eat meat. A vegetarian diet doesn't automatically mean you are going to lose weight. Many people have the mistaken idea that as long as they don't eat meat, everything else is okay. Too much whole milk, cheese and eggs can have the same effect as eating too much meat - over-consumption of saturated fat.

I had a friend who was a vegetarian for years and was twenty to thirty pounds overweight because in her book, chocolate was a vegetable (she categorized it as such because it wasn't a meat product)! She rationalized that she was still doing the vegetarian scene if she went to McDonald's, ordered French fries and a milkshake and stayed away from the burgers.

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