More and more people are following a vegetarian diet . It is estimated that 1 in 10 Italians adhere to this food model, driven by ideological considerations or because they consider it healthier. There is an increasingly widespread belief that a diet that eliminates the consumption of food of animal origin can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases, especially inflammatory, and cancer. As in all things, even in the case of the vegetarian diet there is a downside. There is no shortage of contraindications.
If you are thinking of becoming a vegetarian or have only recently been one, here is an article that delves into the subject. Find out what foods you can eat, the various types of vegetarian diets, the risks involved and how, if necessary, to take cover.
Vegetarian diet: what it really is
It is a real life choice. Any food of animal origin and derivatives, therefore meat and fish, is excluded. Regardless of any processing.
Therefore, cured meats and sausages are also rejected. The right protein intake is guaranteed by legumes, soy-based products and natural vegetable protein supplements.
According to vegetarians, the human being must respect and indulge his nature as a frugivore which, in theory, would allow him to survive by eating only fruit, vegetables, cereals, seeds and legumes, as was the case in prehistoric times.
Many vegetarians also motivate their choice on an ethical basis. Their decision is a way to be in solidarity with Nature, not to exploit animals and make a contribution to the problem of hunger in the world .
Many imbalances between rich and poor countries are in fact caused precisely by the spread of intensive farming (and agriculture dedicated to the production of feed for these animals) which subtract space and resources from agricultural production destined for vegetables, cereals and fruit for human consumption.
Origins of vegetarianism
In 1908, the first Vegetarian Society was born in England . An association founded on solid ethical and health principles, which gave voice to the vegetarian movement.
In opposition to European colonialism, accused of exploiting third world men and animals in order to feed waste and luxury of the richest populations, vegetarianism was gaining ground.
In reality it is a form of philosophy that has much older origins. It has its roots in Asia. Here, in fact, the main religious and philosophical disciplines such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, invite you to eat cereals, legumes, vegetables and fruit.
Even today, India is the country with the highest number of vegetarians in the world and its cuisine includes numerous preparations without meat.
The main types of vegetarian diet
However, a diet that is simply devoid of products of animal origin should not be understood. The concept is actually much broader.
In the large family of vegetarianism there are different dietary models. Let’s see them in more detail.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet
It excludes meat, its derivatives and any edible animal species, whether aquatic, such as fish, molluscs and crustaceans, or terrestrial, such as chickens, calves and pigs.
However, it allows to feed on foods derived from animals, such as eggs, milk, honey and cheeses. And also microorganisms (molds and bacteria).
If well planned, it is a balanced diet. The important thing is not to overdo the consumption of eggs and cheeses, foods rich in cholesterol.
The lacto-vegetarian diet excludes eggs, as well as foods of animal origin, but allows dairy products, while the consumption of honey is discretionary.
Given the elimination of eggs, it is essential to compensate well with the consumption of plant-based foods that are a source of protein and to keep the levels of vitamin B12 under control, to be compensated if necessary with a supplement.
The ovo-vegetarian diet also excludes milk and its derivatives, but not eggs. Also in this case, the consumption of honey is discretionary.
The vegan diet represents a more strict and stringent regime , because all products that involve animal involvement are renounced.
Therefore, the following are excluded:
- the eggs
- all dairy products , such as cheese and yogurt
- honey _
- the yeast
Being very restrictive, this diet must be carefully structured by an expert, in order not to lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. It is therefore important to consult and be followed by your doctor or, better still, by a dietician or medical nutritionist.
It is an all-round philosophy of life, which embraces a lifestyle that does not harm animals and does not exploit them. For this reason, the vegan also refrains from the use of fibers of animal origin, such as wool and silk for clothes, leather for shoes and bags, and uses only vegan drugs, cleaning products and cosmetics , that is of vegetable origin and not. tested on animals.
Vegetarian raw food diet
Based on the consumption of raw fruit and vegetables only, or processed at temperatures no higher than 40 °. It also includes eggs and milk, as long as they are raw.
It is one of the most extreme forms of vegetarianism.
Even more restrictive, it only admits the consumption of fleshy fruits, oil seeds and sprouted seeds. And nothing must be cooked over 40 °.
Vegan diet similar to the traditional one. However, it requires the consumption of only plant foods from organic crops or biodynamic agriculture .
Balanced vegetarian diet
Before embarking on a vegetarian diet, it is good to be followed by an expert in nutrition science.
Indicatively, the daily food pyramid should include the consumption of:
- 6 servings of cereals
- 5 servings of legumes and dried fruit
- 4 servings of fresh vegetables
- 2 servings of fresh fruit
- 2 servings of fat
Example of a balanced vegetarian diet
Just to give the idea, let’s take the example of a typical day.
- Breakfast : 1 low-fat yogurt or 1 glass of soy milk + 1 seasonal fruit + 1 teaspoon of chia seeds + 1 green tea or 1 coffee or instead of everything 1 Budwig cream
- Mid-morning snack : 1 slice of margherita pizza
- Lunch : 70 gr of barley or quinoa + 200 gr of courgettes and sautéed aubergines grilled with oil, salt and spices + 1 mixed seasonal salad
- Mid-afternoon snack : 1 tea + 4 wholemeal honey biscuits
- Dinner : 1 mozzarella + mixed cooked vegetables seasoned with a drizzle of oil + 50 grams of wholemeal bread
Vegetarian diet and protein foods
For newbies we make a synthetic list of products from which a vegetarian can make proteins:
- soy and derivatives such as tofu and tempeh , miso
- milk and derivatives such as dairy products , yogurt and various types of cheeses
- legumes such as chickpeas , lentils , broad beans , peas , beans , cicerchia and lupins
- cereals such as barley , spelled , rice , quinoa
- dried fruit
- algae such as spirulina , wakame , nori
- oil seeds , especially hemp , chia , pumpkin and sunflower seeds
Pros and cons of the vegetarian diet
Before going into more detail, let’s try to make a synthetic distinction between what are the benefits and what are the contraindications of this diet.
Pros of the vegetarian diet
- It prevents many diseases , especially affecting the cardiovascular system
- Respect the planet , nature and animals
- It avoids the pollution deriving from breeding and transport of meat
- The exploitation of natural resources decreases
Contraindications of the vegetarian diet
The main contraindication is the lack of vitamin B12 , which cannot be accumulated in our body, must be taken through food .
It plays an important role in the metabolism of amino acids and fatty acids, and presides over the mechanisms of cell replication. In addition, it intervenes in the formation of red blood cells and bone marrow.
It is present in all foods of animal origin and its intake occurs through food. A deficiency can cause nervous system disorders, anemia and, in pregnant women, damage to the baby’s nervous system.
In addition to this, there are other cons:
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Iron deficiency
- Lack of essential fatty acids, therefore omega 3 and omega 6
- Calcium deficiency
- Loss of muscle tone
The benefits of the vegetarian diet
A healthy and well balanced veg diet, associated with a healthy and dynamic lifestyle , can reduce the risk of many diseases related to stress, sedentary lifestyle and anxiety of modern life. Here are all its benefits in summary:
- reduces the risk of overweight and obesity
- prevents type 2 diabetes mellitus
- lowers LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood
- keeps hypertension under control
- reduces the risk of vascular disease
- counteracts osteoporosis because it allows for better calcium storage
- lowers phosphorus levels in the urine
- prevents the onset of some types of cancer , in particular of the colon, lungs and breast
- relieves colitis
- counteracts gastritis
Vegetarian and Veronese diet
It is well known that Professor Umberto Veronesi , an internationally renowned oncologist, has been a staunch supporter of the fight-ovo-vegetarian diet for years to combat the onset of certain cancers.
He explained that excessive consumption of foods of animal origin causes an accumulation of triglycerides in the adipose tissue as a reserve.
And it is precisely in the body fat that any toxic components are formed that can then cause the onset of a tumor.
Vegetarian diet and deficiencies
If not formulated correctly, it can cause a deficiency of some essential nutrients.
However, it must be said that it is not a prerogative of the veg diet alone. In general, in fact, food shortages derive from an unbalanced diet, regardless of the type of diet adopted. It is therefore not certain that omnivores present a perfectly balanced picture of all nutrients.
Let’s see in detail what food shortages a vegetarian faces if he does not follow a balanced and well-balanced diet:
- high biological value proteins
- essential amino acids
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D (especially D3)
- vitamin B2
Vegetarian diet and iron
The most common dietary deficiency in vegetarians is that of iron, a mineral contained mainly in red meat. It is very important because it is involved in the formation of red blood cells.
In the plant world, the foods richest in iron are:
- Whole grains
- legumes especially lentils
- dried fruit
- oil seeds and in particular pumpkin seeds
- green leafy vegetables
In extreme cases it may be necessary to take iron supplements for vegetarians.
Vegetarian diet and vitamin B12
Eliminating meat and fish can also lead to a lack of vitamin B12, which is necessary for growth, cell repair and nervous system health. L
It also participates in the synthesis of homocysteine , a substance which, if in excessive quantities, increases the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Certain sources of vitamin B12 are:
If needed, there are also fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and soy products.
Vegetarian diet and calcium
In the basic case of “lacto-ovo-vegetarians” it is rather difficult to develop a calcium deficiency. If necessary, just regulate the consumption of dairy products to have a good intake.
Different speech instead for the more rigorous ovo-vegetarians, vegans, raw foodists and fruitarians, for whom the lack of calcium is a very real risk.
Among the vegetables, the richest of all is cauliflower , but all types of cabbage are fine. Also excellent are legumes, cereals, sesame seeds and almonds .
Vegetarian diet and vitamin D.
Vitamin D regulates the absorption of calcium in the intestine and its deficiency can cause rickets and bone growth problems.
D3 is present in products of animal origin, D2 in vegetables, present above all in mushrooms.
To have problems of this type are mainly vegans, who will have to integrate.
Vegetarian diet in pregnancy and breastfeeding
A woman who normally follows a vegetarian or vegan diet does not necessarily have to suspend it during pregnancy, but only pay close attention.
In this phase of his life the essential thing is the health of the child, which must be provided with all the necessary nutrients to make him train and develop well.
During gestation the need for protein increases. Furthermore, vitamins A , B12 , C , D , folic acid and minerals such as calcium, iron, phosphorus and magnesium must not be missing .
Therefore, prefer foods rich in iron such as legumes, soy derivatives such as seitan, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and whole grains.
Care must be taken not to associate them with foods that reduce their absorption, such as tea.
Milk and yogurt are also very important for the calcium intake. Cheese is also a source of vitamin B12, which is useful for the growth and development of the fetus.
Vegetarian diet and children
The ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet does not imply any variation in nutrition for the infant. Both UNICEF and WHO recommend feeding breast milk to babies for good growth.
Problems arise, however, with the advanced stage of weaning, when children are given the first meals based on chicken, beef and fish.
All types of vegetarian diets, due to their characteristics of exclusivity and rigidity, are incompatible with adequate nutrition in children. They are inadequate to respond to the nutritional and energy needs of particular periods such as early childhood.
The developmental age is characterized by growth and psychomotor development, and requires a complete nutritional intake that only a balanced omnivorous diet satisfies.
During weaning, the European Scientific Society of Pediatric Nutrition does not recommend the adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet for the newborn.
This is because, even if the diet was dictated and followed by pediatricians experienced in this type of diet, there are many difficulties in applying it.
The risks of malnutrition and allergies are around the corner and can be very serious, so as to compromise the physiological growth of the child and cause damage, even irreversible.
However, if parents choose to wean the infant on a vegetarian diet, this should be done under regular medical supervision, with frequent testing to detect any early stage of malnutrition.
For a healthy and correct growth of the child, the ideal remains the Mediterranean diet since it mainly includes foods of plant origin and a moderate and balanced consumption of foods of animal origin, such as meat, fish and cheeses.
Vegetarian diet and the elderly
Between the ages of 65 and 75 there is a loss of lean mass and an increase in fat mass, especially around the organs of the abdomen.
This causes diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, some types of cancer and cardiovascular problems in general. Starting a vegetarian diet when you are older can only improve your quality of life.
If you follow a balanced diet and exercise, there are no risks, but only advantages in terms of prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
The only caution is that the protein requirement in the elderly is a little higher than in adults. These are easily achievable quantities, limiting the consumption of fruit and fats to the recommended quantities.
Moreover, numerous studies have shown that vegetarians live on average 5 years longer than the omnivorous population. It is in fact known that the longest-lived populations in the world are those who follow a diet low in animal fats and rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Vegetarian and sports diet
Like any diet, the vegetarian must also be customized according to your needs and lifestyle.
Those who do sports regularly need to take in much more protein than those who do not exercise.
In recent years, many body building athletes have converted to the veg regime. The goal is to sculpt the body by gaining muscle mass through targeted exercises and a diet based only on vegetable proteins.
Remember that a protein diet is an unnecessary overload for the body. But the intake must be balanced with respect to your body weight, at the rate of 1.2 -2 g for each kg of weight.
Contraindications of a vegetarian diet
The main contraindications concern the lack of essential nutrients. Those who follow a diet of this type must keep themselves checked and, if necessary, take the appropriate supplements.
Surely, in children, the elderly and pregnant or breastfeeding women, attention must be maximum.
How to start a vegetarian diet
Based on what has been said so far, doing your own thing is absolutely not recommended. Better to rely on a good dietician or expert in food science, who will be able to study and draw up a food scheme designed ad hoc for the individual case.
Anyone who still wants to start eating vegetarian without waiting for a doctor’s consultation, must adhere to the portions recommended by the Mediterranean food pyramid which provides for the consumption every day of:
- 6 servings of cereals
- 5 servings of legumes and dried fruit
- 4 servings of vegetables
- 2 portions of fruit
- 2 servings of fat
Vegetarian slimming diet
Those who embark on a vegetarian weight loss diet will not actually lose weight if they continue to exceed in portions and use of fats.
To make you fat are really too abundant dishes, too fatty foods, wrong combinations of foods and excessive seasoning.
And of course you have to get moving.
Vegetarian diet recipes
Following a veg diet does not mean eating salad from morning to night. Here are some vegetarian recipes from which to take inspiration and then have fun in the kitchen.
- Vegetarian lasagna : the veg alternatives are truly endless. From the classics to pesto to those with mushrooms or pumpkin, to tomato and eggplant sauce, to broccoli, zucchini and peas … Here are just a few ideas, but just let yourself be creative and be inspired by the products that the season offers.
- Vegetarian sushi : ideal for fans of the Japanese world, just add any type of vegetable ( cucumber , carrot , beet , radicchio , avocado …) to rice instead of raw fish , and there are ready-made ones.
- Zucchini spaghetti : an original idea to bring seasonal vegetables to the table in a tasty and different way than usual. You can also prepare carrot, white turnip and daikon spaghetti .
- Vegan or vegetarian carbonara , the variant of the classic dish without meat and eggs is made with tofu and a delicious cream with peppers, courgettes, aubergines or whatever you like best.
- Stuffed vegetables : peppers, stuffed aubergines , stuffed courgettes , tomatoes may not be filled with meat only. Here are some examples of veg filling: bread, dried tomatoes, thyme and parmesan, or potatoes, courgettes, cherry tomatoes and scamorza.
- Vegetable meatballs to be prepared as desired, with yogurt, soft cheese not too mature, eggs, herbs and spices, based on minced legumes such as lupins, lentils and chickpeas. The most fmosi? Middle Eastern falafel !
- Hummus : fantastic Middle Eastern cream based on chickpeas and tahini , a sesame and oil paste, to be enjoyed accompanied with bread or cooked and raw vegetables
- Vegetarian burgers : very simple to prepare, they can be made starting from a base of boiled chickpeas, quinoa or steamed potatoes, to be blended and mixed with chopped vegetables, eggs and breadcrumbs
- Buddha bowl of all kinds, to be composed according to your pantry, with a base of cereals, rice or spelled, and then beans, edamame , corn, diced raw vegetables, but also dried fruit and oil seeds …
- Ethnic foods, especially of Indian origin, such as tofu curry and lentil and rice salad , or Middle Eastern foods such as couscous , or Mexican such as guacamole and veg empanadas …
- Veggie wrap : delicious wraps of wraps stuffed with feta, julienne carrots, rocket , fresh zucchini and tzatziki