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Health Team

Vegetarian Diet Brings Health Benefits, Challenges

Posted January 4, 2008 4:59 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2008 6:36 p.m. EST

— Being a vegetarian in today's society has gotten easier as more stores and restaurants offer options that fit the bill. Even so, it's not the easiest way to fill your plate. The diet brings both health benefits and challenges.

About 25 years ago, Gale Wilkins decided not to eat meat. She's a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which allows dairy and egg products. Her diet and regular exercise served her well until her mid-40s when she began to gain weight.

“You know, I'm 52 and I'm at that particular age where my body's slowing down,” she said.

Wilkins went to WakeMed Registered Dietitian Erin Cross for help. Cross says many people go meatless to help them lose weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. But there are health concerns if it's not done right.

“It's becoming increasingly popular with many celebrities becoming vegetarian, which is a concern when you've got teenagers who simply drop major food groups out of their diet,” Cross said.

Without meat or meat byproducts, people need other sources of protein, iron, calcium and Vitamin D. There's soy milk, beans or legumes, nuts, seeds and natural peanut butter, which is different from other peanut butter where there's extra sugar added.

Some of those foods are also high in calories, which was a problem for Wilkins.

“Well, actually, I love nuts so I realized I had a portion control problem,” she said.

Cross told Wilkins to carefully measure servings, even with breakfast cereal.

“You may say, ‘I have a bowl of cereal in the morning.’ But if you have a deep bowl, that's maybe two to three servings,” Cross said.

Choosing the right foods in the right portions is a challenge for vegetarians.

“You must educate yourself and plan ahead,” Cross said.

Vegetarians may also consider supplements to make sure they get enough nutrients, such as calcium and iron.