Ever-growing numbers of Australians are opting for a vegetarian diet, meaning that they elect not to eat meat, meat products and fish. Some stricter vegetarians also refuse to eat eggs.
Why do people decide to be vegetarian?
Reasons for opting for a vegetarian diet are many and various.
Many people decide that for ethical purposes they are no longer prepared to eat meat: they see it as killing animals and that in the modern world, this is no longer necessary for human survival.
Some vegetarians just don't like the taste of meat or the texture.
Some people are protesting against farming methods in the Third World, where animals are fed grain-intensively, leaving less grain for humans to eat arguably a factor in causing famine.
Some people opt to become vegetarian for health reasons.
Is a vegetarian diet healthy?
By and large, most health professionals would agree that a vegetarian diet can be healthy, as long as the person is aware of nutritional guidelines. Certainly a reduction in saturated animal fats can help to reduce blood cholesterol levels, the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, as well as reduce overall body weight. Some would also argue that the preservatives and antibiotics used in the production of meat products also affects meat-eaters' health in a negative way.
Vegetarians need to be conscious of certain aspects of a healthy diet. The iron found in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as that from meat, so special attention must be paid to this. Certain vitamins and minerals are also not as readily found in plant foods, though with careful dietary planning this can be overcome.
How can I ensure that my vegetarian diet is healthy?
It's important for vegetarians to get adequate B vitamins, protein and iron from a wide range of plant proteins, including nuts, seeds and legumes such as lentils. Whereas meat eaters can consume a number of amino acids (which make up protein) from, say, beef, most plant foods contain only a few amino acids of each type. So eating a good variety of pulses is important. Also try to include yeast extract products such as Vegemite fairly frequently, as these are an excellent source of B vitamins.
If you're thinking of going vegetarian, it would be a good idea to get hold of a book that details vegetarian foodstuffs and nutrition, along with recipe suggestions.
How easy is it to follow a vegetarian diet?
In this day and age it is a relatively simple matter to be vegetarian. Doing your initial research may take a little bit of time and it is essential that you do, not just in terms of eating healthily but also in terms of avoiding hidden animal products. For example, many hard cheeses contain rennet, an animal by-product, or your vegetable soup may contain chicken stock.
On the flip-side, many supermarkets now stock products that are clearly marked as being suitable for vegetarians, and also those that are often seen as "meat replacements" such as tofu, Quorn and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Most restaurants and cafes will offer a vegetarian option or two, though when travelling overseas it always pays to check with the serving staff whether or not a dish contains meat or fish.
Will I lose weight on a vegetarian diet?
Many busy vegetarians find that they tend to over-consume dairy foods such as cheese (without the animal protein rennet) and this can lead to being overweight. As with any other kind of diet, more energy taken in than expended will result in weight gain. A good vegetarian diet generally requires more planning than an omnivorous one, but careful eating in conjunction with a sensible exercise regime should eventually result in weight reduction.