Whether you are eating lunch on an airplane, attending a wedding dinner, or eating in a restaurant establishment, you will notice the growing trend toward vegetarianism. On most menus throughout America, there are vegetarian options noted for those who prefer the vegetarian diet. Vegetarians believe that this diet is much healthier than the average American diet, which includes animal products. So, what is the truth about vegetarianism.is it really a healthy alternative to the typical American diet?

Before considering the health aspects of the vegetarian diet, it is important to make a distinction between the types of vegetarianism. The least strict vegetarian is the semi-vegetarian (not considered vegetarian by the American Vegetarian Society) who focuses only on the exclusion of red meat from the diet. The lacto-ovo vegetarian excludes meat, fish and fowl, but consumes both dairy and egg products. A lacto-vegetarian will not consume meat, fish, fowl, or eggs, but continues to eat dairy products. The ovo-vegetarian excludes meat, fish, fowl, and dairy, but continues to consume eggs. The most extreme of the four vegetarian groups is the vegan who consumes no meat, fish, fowl, dairy or eggs. The vegans are the individuals attracting the most scrutiny from the general public.

So, what are the main arguments against the vegan diet? The biggest concern is that the vegan diet excludes many essential nutrients required to maintain a healthy body. The vitamin attracting the greatest attention is the B12 vitamin, a vitamin found in meat, fish, eggs and milk. B12 is responsible for maintaining nerve cells in the body. Because vegans do not consume the products in which B12 is found, a serious deficit of the vitamin could occur. The research of Dr. Joseph Mercola, who is both an osteopathic physician and the director of the Optimal Wellness Center in Chicago, has found a link between the B12 vitamin and blindness. The research states that a French patient who was vegan for 13 years and lost most of his vision. No cause, besides the lack of B12 due to the vegan diet, was found for the sudden loss of sight.

There is evidence to suggest that there is a link between the vitamins B12 and folate and Alzheimer's. An article published in Neurology magazine demonstrates this relationship. This was taken from a study at the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center and Division of Geriatric Medicine. The study involved 370 men and women ranging from 75 years and above. It was found that with low levels of either B12 or folate, the chance for developing Alzheimer's doubled.

In addition to the B12 vitamin, there are other nutrients in which the typical vegan may be deficient. These nutrients include iron, zinc, calcium and protein. Most of these nutrients can be obtained through plant sources, iron, however has a much better absorption rate from meat sources.

Why, then, do vegetarians insist that the diet is healthy if it is deficient in essential nutrients? Research has shown that vegetarians, in general, have lower rates of obesity, heart-disease, hypertension and type II diabetes. On average, vegetarians have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower cholesterol. The research did not specify whether or not the vegetarians were vegan. In one study involving the Seventh Day Adventist church members from 1977-1988, of the 34,192 total participants, 29% were vegetarian, 7-10% of these were vegan. The study found that vegetarians had half the high blood pressure, diabetes, and colon cancer and 2/3 less rheumatoid arthritis and prostate cancer.

Another healthy advantage to the vegetarian diet is that it follows the USDA and Mayo Clinic food pyramids in many ways focusing on a low-fat diet which is high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. With the exception of the vegan, vegetarians can attain a healthy quantity of foods from each segment of the food pyramid.

So, what is the verdict about vegetarianism? Is it a healthy alternative or is it an alternative to a healthy diet? It depends on the type of vegetarianism. As long as the vegetarian is consuming dairy and egg products, vegetarians can attain most of the nutrients needed for a healthy lifestyle.

If you are considering the vegan diet make sure you get calcium from foods such as green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified food products. You can obtain iron from beans, dried fruit and whole grains (combine with Vitamin C to aid in absorption) and zinc from wheat germ and whole grains. B12, unfortunately, comes only from animals and therefore MUST be supplemented. Because it is difficult to absorb orally, alternative methods must be performed to supplement the B12 vitamin. These methods include IM (intra-muscular) injections, which are relatively cheap and quite effective, sublingual (under the tongue) therapy, and a prescription nasal spray, which is very expensive.

Moderation is the key to healthy eating. Because meat proves the most easily-absorbed source of iron and the only source of B12, it should be a natural addition to most diets. However, moderation is the key. In the high-fat, high-calorie world that we live in, vegetarianism may actually prove to be the healthy alternative to an unhealthy American diet.

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Axmaker, Larry. Wellsource.com: Special Issues for Vegetarians. (2004)

Collins, Anne. AnneCollins.com: Health Benefits of Vegetarianism. (2004).

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com: Dangers of a Vegetarian Diet in Teens. (2005).

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com: Strict Vegetarians can Develop Blindness and Brain Damage. (2005).

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com: Vegetarian Diet Increases Alzheimer's Risk. (2005).

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com: Is Being a Vegetarian Part of Living Healthy and Longer? (2005).

Wang, H. X. Neurology.org: Vitamin B12 and Folate in Relation to the elopment of Alzheimer's Disease. AAN Enterprises, Inc. (2001).

Westlake, Joan. Active.com: When Embarking on a Vegetarian Diet, Make Sure you Balance your Nutrients. The Active Network. (2000).

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