Vegetarians feel good about food choices

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— October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, shining the spotlight on people who have chosen diets that depend primarily or exclusively on plant products.

Vegetarians fall into one of three categories. Vegans are the most dedicated vegetarians. They eat exclusively plant products, declining meat, fish and dairy foods. Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products, but not eggs, meat or fish. Ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy products but no meat or fish.

According to the American Cancer Society, vegetarians who eat a well-balanced diet have a lower incidence of cancer than nonvegetarians.

Many vegetarians choose this lifestyle for health benefits and also participate in other behaviors that promote good health.

Amy Brown, a Steamboat Springs athlete, has been an ovo-lacto-vegetarian for 14 years.

"I eat this way because it makes me feel good, and I feel it decreases my odds of cancer," she said. "Animals are fed antibiotics and unwanted chemicals I cannot bear to put in my body. I try to eat foods in their most natural state, and when I do, it makes me feel good."

A vegetarian diet might offer some protection from health problems such as high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and even certain types of cancer.

These health benefits are derived from a vegetarian diet that is low in fat and high in nutrition. As we know, it's a good idea to consume high-fiber, low-fat foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

It's important to maintain a balance in any diet. Anne Halloran, a nutritional consultant and the owner of Bamboo Market, believes education is essential to eating right.

"If you are uneducated about grains, vitamins and protein, for example, you may run into some problems," she said. "I know vegetarians who lack protein in their diet so they start to crave high amounts of coffee, tea and sugars."

The most frequent question that arises is, "Can you really get enough protein in a vegetarian diet?" The answer is yes, you can, if you eat a variety of several proteins. Nuts and seeds offer the highest concentration of protein, followed by whole grains. Legumes such as peas, beans and lentils provide a proportionately smaller percentage of protein. Dairy products are a good source of protein for vegetarians who are not vegans.

Another common concern is iron deficiency. Iron from plant foods is not as well-absorbed by the body as iron from meat. A good rule of thumb for vegetarians is to eat iron-containing plant foods in combination with foods that contain vitamin C. Cooking in iron pots can also increase absorption.

Some foods that interfere with the body's ability to absorb iron are tea, coffee, chocolate and soft drinks. These foods contain tannin, caffeine and phosphates, which inhibit iron absorption.

Vitamins D and B-12 may also may be lacking in a vegetarian diet, especially a vegan eating plan. Linda Carlton, owner of Healthy Solutions, is a strong advocate of vitamin supplements.

"Vitamins are important for vegetarians to consume. It is very hard to get a balanced diet unless you have the time in your schedule to always eat right," she said.

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, especially for people who take the time to learn about nutrition. The less variety there is in the diet, the more careful vegetarians have to be to get all the nutrients they need.

Vegetarianism is a personal choice it's all about what works for you.

Katherine Zambrana, a student at Colorado State University, is an intern with Yampa Valley Medical Center's Wellness Program.

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