Longtime vegetarians have put up with the scorn of meat-eaters for decades. But no more. Now, those who adhere to a plant-based diet are firmly in the mainstream.
The interest in vegetarianism has grown quietly and without much fanfare, in response to all the talk about lowering fat content in our diet and eating more whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 6, 2000 Home Edition Health Part S Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong meaning--In the Oct. 30 Eating Smart column, "Give Them No Beef and No Grief: Vegetarians Have Gained Respect," the definition of vitamin B12 was incorrect. Vitamin B12 is cobalamin; vitamin B2 is riboflavin.
When compared with the average American, vegetarians seem to be at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancers (especially of the colon, breast and lung). Their blood pressure and cholesterol levels tend to be lower, and they are much less likely to suffer from obesity. They also tend to have fewer digestive system problems such as constipation and diverticulosis.
There are several different types of vegetarians:
* Vegans do not eat any animal foods at all. This is the most difficult type of vegetarian diet to follow and to balance nutritionally.
* Lacto vegetarians include dairy products as protein sources in their diet. To keep this type of diet low in fat and cholesterol, low-fat or skim milk products must be used.
* Lacto-ovo vegetarians add eggs and dairy foods to their diet. Most American vegetarians fall into this category.
* Pesco vegetarians eat fish, as well as eggs and dairy products.
* Semi-vegetarians are people who eat small amounts of meat, fish or chicken. In fact, most low-fat, "heart healthy" plans suggest using lean animal products as side dishes instead of entrees. Many ethnic cuisines fall into this grouping. This may be the easiest type of diet to use as a transition if you are trying to change your eating habits.
Twenty or 30 years ago, the chief worry of vegetarians was whether they were getting enough protein and whether the proteins were "complete" or complementary. Now we know that the proteins in vegetables and grains are not devoid of essential amino acids, just that some have more than others.
For example, bread, which has long been a staple of every human diet, is rich in the amino acid methionine but is low in lysine. On the other hand, legumes are rich in lysine but poor in methionine, so if you eat legumes and bread together, you will have a complete protein. If you think that sounds like a peanut butter sandwich, you're right.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to combine proteins in the same meal. The amino acids of foods eaten three or four hours apart will still complement each other in useful ways. The important thing to remember is that if you eat a wide variety of foods, you'll probably absorb a full complement of amino acids.
Various cuisines have offered a kind of instinctive blending of dishes. Without understanding the biochemistry behind it, cooks have for centuries put together lentils and rice, beans and brown bread or corn bread, corn and lima beans. Most of the diets in the world contribute adequate combinations of amino acids and protein, so the worry about protein is pretty much unfounded. In addition, we know that most Americans eat far too much protein, so this is certainly no reason to shun a vegetarian diet, especially a lacto or lacto-ovo vegetarian regime.
Strict vegans may have reason to be concerned about certain vitamins. Some of the potential deficiencies that could exist are in vitamins B12 (riboflavin) and D, which are found only in animal products. Although a B12 deficiency can bring on anemia or certain changes in the nervous system, there is no evidence that vegans can become so severely depleted that they develop these symptoms. However, if you are not eating any meat, dairy products or eggs, you'll either have to take supplements or eat fortified foods such as soy milk or cereals (be sure to check the labels carefully--not all fortified cereals include B12).
B12 is one of those nutrients that we don't need in huge quantities--3-millionths of a gram a day will do. Most plants have little or no vitamin B12, and the foods that contain the most are liver, beef, eggs, milk and shellfish, which sounds very much like a list of the foods highest in fat and cholesterol.
One of the products currently being sold to serve as a B12 supplement is spirulina, a type of blue-green freshwater algae. It has received a great deal of attention and has spawned a flourishing market in the health food stores and through individual distributorships.
But is it the answer for vegetarians who want to forestall any deficiencies of B12? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it does.
Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, and a deficiency can cause rickets in children. However, you don't need much vitamin D, and if you get some sun every day, your body will probably be able to synthesize all you require.