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Don't Chicken Out

By Keecha Harris, Dr.PH, R.D

Vegetarianism is no more of a health hazard than meat-and-potatoism. In fact, itís probably a lot healthier for you as long as you meet your need for nutrients like protein, iron and vitamin B12. There are well-established health benefits associated with eating a plant-based diet. In fact, a recent study out of Brigham and Womenís Hospital builds the case for premenopausal women limiting red meat in their diets.

You have joined a growing club of more than 6 million Americans who follow a vegetarian diet. There are a number of reasons that people become vegetarians--ethics, economics, health, environment or faith. And in making this move, these folks are probably adding years to their lives. According to a deep library of scientific literature, vegetarians experience lower rates of chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Also, they tend to have lower body mass indexes and blood cholesterol levels.

The primary emphasis of a vegetarian diet should be eating whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables and selecting lower-fat or fat-free dairy. Vegetarians who consume dairy and/or eggs need to balance calories with activity and to limit the amount of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol. No different than the health needs of meat eaters.

There are four major categories of vegetarianism, defined by the extent to which animal products are included in a diet. You can meet your nutrient needs with each. But as you eliminate more animal products from your diet, you will need to be more intentional about getting the nutrients you need through foods and/or supplements.

The four primary categories of vegetarianism are:

* Semi-vegetarian: Adheres to a diet that is primarily plant-based but occasionally eats meat, poultry or fish and possibly milk and/or eggs. Semi-vegetarians who eat fish but no meat or poultry are called pescetarians.
* Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Includes milk and eggs in the diet but excludes meat, poultry and fish. This is the most common category of vegetarians.
* Lacto vegetarian: Eats dairy products as a part of a plant-based diet of grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruits. No eggs, meat, poultry or fish.
* Vegan: Relies solely on plant sources of foods and excludes all foods of animal origin, including lard, beef tallow, margarine made from milk, meat extracts and bases, gelatin and sometimes honey. Vegans are at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because it is only found in animal products.

Becoming a pizzaterian or pastaterian may help you avoid meat, but this diet leaves much to be desired. You need to eat a variety of foods from as many food groups as possible. By cutting out meat, you increase your risk for developing deficiencies in nutrients found abundantly in meats. Talk with your doctor or registered dietitian for advice on nutritious meal planning and how to supplement your needs that youíre having difficulty meeting with food. Hereís a rundown of the main nutrient trouble areas for veggie lovers.

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