It is commonly believed that a vegetarian diet is a healthy diet. And that is usually true, but not always. Consider the mother who recently told me that her child had decided to become a vegetarian. As she described his diet, I realized that he did not eat a single fruit or vegetable! Isn't that a fundamental part of being a vegetarian? More and more, however, young vegetarians are turning into "carb-etarians," eating few fruits and vegetables and opting for starches, such as pasta, pizza and french fries. Clearly, this sort of diet is in no way healthy.
There are many ways in which eating a true vegetarian diet (complete with fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins) can benefit your health. Dairy foods and certain animal products, like beef, tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol; limiting or eliminating these foods from your diet is a great way to cut back on these "bad" fats. However, people who choose to adopt a vegetarian way of life tend to make up these calories by eating more carbohydrates like breads, rice, pastas and other starches. While your LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) can be greatly reduced from switching to vegetarianism, a diet too high in carbohydrates can actually result in elevated triglyceride levels. Triglycerides contribute to total cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
The foundation of any healthy diet is one with balance, variety and moderation. Eating a wide range of foods ensures that you will get all of the nutrients your body requires. So while adopting vegetarianism can be part of a healthy lifestyle, it is important to choose your foods carefully. Relying solely on carbohydrates for nourishment is not healthy. Dietary protein is important for maintaining your immune system and for building and repairing your body tissues. Vegetarians need to eat the proper amount of plant-based protein each day.
Meats, fish, eggs and poultry are the most "complete" sources of essential amino acids, the protein building blocks that the body can't make on its own. Other foods do contain protein but are usually "incomplete" sources of amino acids, meaning they have some, but not all, of the amino acids needed to make proteins. Vegetarians can ensure that they are getting all of the essential amino acids by combining foods, such as whole grains with nuts or legumes. For example, whole wheat bread with peanut butter, or rice and beans. These foods don't necessarily have to be eaten at the same meal; as long as you are having these foods throughout the day, the body is able to "pool" amino acids and save them to form body protein later on.
It is very possible to consume a vegetarian diet that has only plant-based proteins and is still nutritionally balanced. In fact, this type of diet can greatly reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, peas and lentils are full of fiber and antioxidants, which decrease your risk for certain cancers and heart disease. In addition to making you feel full and satisfied, dietary fiber can lower serum cholesterol levels and improve colon health.
The heart-healthy benefits that can be gained from switching to vegetarianism are not solely dependent on the foods you eliminate from your diet. What you include in your diet is also important. The bottom line is that vegetarians must eat fruit, vegetables, and plant-based proteins.