Vegetarianism is a way of life for many of the world's population. The exact percentage is impossible to estimate due to the various definitions of diets, according to the International Vegetarian Union, an organization established in 1908 with members throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Vegetarian meals do not include meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans further restrict their diets to exclude the intake of milk, cheese, eggs, and other products derived from animals. Terms such as semi-vegetarian or pseudo-vegetarian are sometimes used to describe variations for individuals that may allow chicken and other poultry, fish, and/or small amounts of meat. Some reasons people decide to follow rules for vegetarian meals include environmental concerns, religious beliefs, and empathy for animals. However, a number of vegetarians believe a diet that excludes or reduces meat intake leads to a healthier, disease-resistant life. Indeed, the American Dietetic Association states "science suggests positive relationships between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer". Is vegetarian health a realistic goal in a modern society where animal products are served, or used in the preparation of so many common recipes and meals?
According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for the Americans presented by the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture, a large number of the Americans take in too many calories each day and still fail to consume all of the recommended nutrients. Balanced meal choices that offer high nutrients and low carbohydrates and fats are important for proper growth and development of children, the health maintenance of adults, and prevention of many chronic diseases. The Dietary Guidelines recommends these essential daily nutrients should come from foods such as dark green and orange vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, low-fat milk and milk products.
Vegetarian meals can follow the recommended intake of nutrients, but must be carefully assigned, especially when substituting for meat and milk products. The USDA states "These individuals should give special attention to their intakes of protein, iron, and vitamin B12, as well as calcium and vitamin D if avoiding milk". Vegetarians can easily meet their protein needs by including sources such as lentils, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu, and low-fat dairy products in meals throughout the day. A number of other foods contain some protein that can supplement intake such as whole grain bread, pasta, and corn. Iron can be found in dried beans, dried fruit, and dark greens like spinach and collard. Vitamin C added to vegetarian meals through sources such as citrus or tomato will increase the iron absorption during digestion. Calcium can be obtained from a variety of products including collard greens, broccoli, kale, tofu, and dairy. Vegans are at higher risk for not getting adequate B12, which is not found in plant foods, but some products are fortified with the vitamin or it can be taken as a supplement. Many books, websites, and other resources give detailed lists of the many choices individuals have for maintaining vegetarian health through a balanced diet.
All of this is a great information for those times when you are preparing your own carefully planned vegetarian meals at home, but what if you want to go out for dinner? The network of vegan and vegetarian sources for restaurants is beyond belief. With a decent internet connection, one can find searchable guides to restaurants and natural health food stores virtually anywhere in the world. Type in keywords "restaurants vegetarian", for example, and a list of online links will appear for restaurant suggestions, menu selections, and even appropriate vegetarian options available in popular fast food chains. Another approach is to look in the local yellow pages for restaurants vegetarian specialized dining options.
It is important to take precautions when adopting a lifestyle that entirely excludes animal or dairy products. A healthy, nutritious, vegetarian diet requires some planning to ensure that you get enough of the essential nutrients your body needs each day.