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Vegetarian diets offer health benefits at any age

​​A vegetarian diet is a natural way to help prevent and treat chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease. 

To achieve the nutritional and health benefits of a vegetarian diet takes proper meal planning. Good replacement food choices can help you gain the distinct health advantages of a vegetarian diet at any age.

"People are choosing to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for the health benefits and for economic, ecologic and social concerns," said Linda Daubner, a registered dietitian at Flambeau Hospital, Park Falls. "But even a vegetarian diet can be as unhealthy as the standard American diet when it's hastily planned."

Vegetarian diets can differ as to which food groups are included or excluded:

  • Pescatarian diet – includes fish, dairy and eggs, and omits all other animal foods.
  • Lactovegetarian diet –includes dairy but not eggs, and omits all other animal foods.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet – omits animal foods with the exception of dairy and eggs.
  • Vegan diet – omits all animal foods including eggs and dairy.

The bulk of the food should include: vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

"You need to eat a variety of foods including whole foods - those as least processed as possible - as the basis of your diet," Daubner said. "Finding the right combination of replacement foods to get the appropriate nutrition has become easier."

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a nutrient concern at any age for vegetarians. This nutrient helps keep your body's nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. For children, teens and young adults, other potential nutrient deficiencies include iron and calcium.

When more food groups are eliminated from the diet, it's increasingly important to understand the need for nutritious alternative food sources.

"If dairy is eliminated, salmon, almonds and sesame seeds can meet calcium needs. Iron-fortified grains combined with foods high in Vitamin C can help meet iron requirements. An age-appropriate multivitamin with minerals is a nice safeguard," said Daubner.

A vegetarian diet may not be appropriate for everyone. Consider talking with your health care team, including a dietitian and your pharmacist.

"If you are taking a blood thinner such as Coumadin, or have to watch your potassium levels, you need to pay close attention to what you eat," said Greg Johnso​n, M.D.​, a family medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Park Falls Center. "It's helpful for your doctor to know if you're on a vegetarian diet, and that it's well-balanced."

Watching sugars is important if you have diabetes. "The source of the sugars in a vegetarian diet should be healthier, but how much sugar is in the foods you are eating, still needs to be monitored," Dr. Johnson said.

Making good replacement food choices is the bottom line.

"I see older people who eat more simple carbohydrates such as pastries and cereal, because these foods are easier to chew or prepare," Daubner said. "I also see teens who want to rely on macaroni and cheese, Pop Tarts and peanut butter to sustain their vegetarian diet. Complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, soy products, and nuts and seeds, are the better food alternatives because they're higher in fiber and offer more nutrients than empty calories. Eating these foods will provide the well-balanced, healthy diet you need."