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Appropriately Planned Vegetarian Diet

vegetarian diet
Studies have confirmed that vegetarian diets do not pose health risks as long as they are "appropriately planned" and in accordance with the dietary guidelines outlined by the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Therefore, any potential risks of a vegetarian diet are caused by unhealthy dietary choices that do not meet the ADA nutrient and caloric guidelines. A vegetarian diet that does not meet basic nutrient needs is at risk of protein and vitamin deficiencies. Additionally, a vegetarian diet that does not meet basic caloric requirements poses a risk; recent studies have linked disordered eating, such as anorexia and bulimia, to some individuals who identify themselves as vegetarians.

Protein Deficiencies only a Risk for Unhealthy Vegetarian Diets

According to the article "Protein Deficiency Risk with Vegetarian Diet," vegetarians need to include a combination of plant-based protein sources in their diet to ensure that they meet essential amino acid and daily protein needs. However, most vegetarians easily reach their daily protein and amino acid needs, especially because soy, a large part of most vegetarian diets, is a complete protein (contains all of the essential amino acids). For appropriately planned vegetarian diets, there is a very small risk of a protein deficiency.

Most Americans’ consume far more protein than required or recommended for health. Many diseases and conditions are related to an overconsumption of protein, so a vegetarian diet is actually a healthy diet choice, especially regarding protein consumption. Only when a vegetarian diet does not meet ADA recommendations, such as ones that include the consumption of a large amount of junk food (usually protein-poor foods), is there a risk for a protein deficiency.

Appropriately Planned Vegetarian Diets are not at Risk for Nutrient and Vitamin Deficiencies

According to the ADA, an appropriately planned vegetarian diet is not at risk for vitamin or nutrient deficiencies. However, an unhealthy vegetarian diet (one that is not appropriately planned) or vegan diets (a diet that does not consist of any animal products), is at risk of vitamin deficiencies, most notably a vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is only found in meat products. Because vegetarians eat animal products such as eggs and milk, they meet their B12 needs; vegans, however, will not. Unhealthy vegetarian diets and vegan diets are also at risk for vitamin D deficiencies and have the potential to be deficient in iron, zinc, and calcium. However, eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and good fats, as required by the ADA in a “well-planned” vegetarian diet, eliminates any risk of deficiency.

Potential Link Between Vegetarian Diets and Eating Disorders

An appropriately planed vegetarian diet must meet daily caloric recommendations. When a vegetarian diet consistently does not meet caloric needs, it poses a significant health risk. Research has indicated a potential link between disordered eating, such as anorexia and bulimia, and individuals who identify themselves as vegetarian. According to Julianne Trautman et al for the College Student Journal (2008) titled "Vegetarian Students in Their First Year of College: Are They at Risk for Restrictive or Disordered Eating Behaviors?" some researchers believe that vegetarianism can provide students with a socially acceptable means to avoid certain foods as a form of weight control. Marjaana Lindeman in Vegetarianism and Eating-Disordered Thinking (2000) stated that 45% of anorectics classify themselves as vegetarians; according to the Eating Disorder Review (2003) one-third of vegetarians seemed to be at risk for an eating disorder.

There has not been enough research to conclusively link eating disorders with vegetarian diets. Lindeman concludes that it is more likely to be an "intertwined phenomena,” without a causal link between vegetarian diets and eating disorders. Additional research is required to understand and establish a conclusive link; however, it is a potential risk to be aware of in individuals identifying themselves as vegetarians.

"Appropriately Planned" Vegetarian Diets do not Pose Significant Risks

In the past, concerns have been raised about the potential of vegetarian diets to lead to protein, vitamin, and nutrient deficiencies; however, as long the diet is "appropriately planned" those deficiencies should not arise. Instead, research has shown that a vegetarian diet, instead of presenting any significant risks, is actually directly related to a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The health benefits attributed to a vegetarian diet combined with its relative lack of risk means that a vegetarian diet is a healthy choice, even for children and pregnant women.

More research is needed on the link between vegetarian diets and eating disorders; it is more likely that those with eating disorders use vegetarianism as an excuse to avoid certain foods or social situations, not that a vegetarian diet leads to eating disorders. Regardless, when a vegetarian diet is appropriately planned, and meets the guidelines outlined by the ADA, there are no risks for protein, vitamin, or caloric deficiencies.

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