Vegetarianism a growing choice

2016-03-03 06:00
PHOTO: supplied For vegetarians, hummus is a good source of protein.

PHOTO: supplied For vegetarians, hummus is a good source of protein.

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UNHEALTHY lifestyles are causing a rise in diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancers. While there are a number of ways to improve one’s lifestyle and eating habits, vegetarianism is gaining popularity among an ever-increasing sector of the population.

We saw last time that the benefits of eating more plant-based meals are well-documented, but many are concerned about how nutritionally adequate these diets truly are. Foods that are eaten in greater amounts include vegetables (both raw and cooked), fruits, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts. Meat products are avoided, with semi-vegetarians including chicken and fish, and pescatarians including fish.

Due to the nature of foods that are excluded, a number of nutrients can be inadequate if the diet is not carefully planned. Protein, iron, vitamin B12, omega 3 fatty acids and calcium are a few of the more commonly lacking nutrients.

• Protein: The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. Animal products are complete proteins and contain all of the essential amino acids, whereas plant products do not contain all of the essential amino acids in a single food. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products) can easily fulfil their requirements. Vegans must ensure that they eat a variety of grains and legumes to consume all of the essential amino acids. Lentils with rice, hummus with wholewheat crackers or pita bread, beans with samp are examples of good food combinations. Soya beans and products made from soya are also good-quality proteins, but beware of the level of processing which may add unwanted fats and additives.

• Iron: The iron in plants has a lower bioavailability than the iron in meat, resulting in a lower percentage of the total iron being absorbed. Consuming no meat products will theoretically predispose an individual to iron-deficiency anaemia. However, research has shown that this type of anaemia is typically very rare among people following plant-based diets. Good sources of iron for vegetarians include kidney beans, black beans, soya beans, raisins, cashew nuts, oats and tomato juice. Incorporating a few of these foods daily should yield adequate iron intake for healthy individuals.

• Calcium: Calcium works with vitamin D to achieve optimal bone growth and strength. Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and hard cheese are the most bioavailable sources of calcium. Calcium from plant sources is generally not well-absorbed and very large quantities are needed to provide even a small amount of the nutrient. Spinach and milk contain the same amount of calcium per cup. However, poor bioavailability means that eight cups of spinach need to be eaten for the equivalent calcium absorption of one cup of milk! Broccoli and white beans are two of the most efficient calcium-yielding plants. Consuming two cups of either option will provide the body with the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk. For vegetarians who use milk or yogurt as the main calcium source, the daily requirement is met in three cups of milk per day. This is difficult to achieve, and pescatarians can enlist the help of pilchards or sardines with bones to increase substantially their calcium intake. Vegans will most likely require a calcium supplement or calcium-fortified foods such as tofu or fortified cereals.

- Supplied.

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