A balanced diet is of utmost importance for people of all ages. Regardless of one’s health status, most calories should be obtained from nutritious sources. Vitamins and minerals found in fruits, vegetables, milk products or meat are essential for the body’s inner processes. For them to function properly, people should pay close attention to what, how and when they eat. All these contribute to proper digestion. After the food is chewed and swallowed, it reaches the stomach. Here, its enzymes and juices break it down. It then enters the small intestine where the exchange between its walls and the blood stream is made and nutrients enter the blood. In the absence of beneficial substances, the obtained product reaches the colon where it is once again drained off the excess water and remaining vitamins. The semi-solid material then moves towards the rectum and anus where it is evacuated. As complicated as it may seem, this activity is a natural one and a good digestive system performs these tasks daily and without much effort. People should include in their diets all food types as to provide the body with its necessary dose of nutrients and encourage the digestive system’s functions. A diet comprised only of carbohydrates or proteins is not a safe choice if one wants to lose weight, in spite of what some dietitians promote nowadays. All food classes are equally important, especially because they fulfill different roles.

Carbohydrates are chemical compounds originating from plants. All plants and plant-based products contain carbohydrates. People automatically think of them when they hear terms such as starch or sugar. Many of today’s processed foods contain them. Once these products enter the body, the stomach’s and small intestine’s enzymes break them down and turn them into simple carbohydrates- monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides directly enter the bloodstream because their chemical structure is a basic one and it allows them to do so. Disaccharides and polysaccharides(complex carbohydrates) are more complicated in structure so the liver stores them as glycogen. Glycogen is turned into glucose whenever the body needs an extra dose of energy.[1]

Fats are another essential element of the diet. They are more concentrated in structure than carbohydrates so the enzymes break them down harder. They usually originate from animal products like milk or meat, but are also found in seeds. Fats are either stable (bacon) or liquid (vegetable oils); they are responsible for vitamin transportation, A, D and E in particular. Glycerin and fatty acids are part of their structure and used to create energy. One of the today’s biggest health issues, cholesterol, is influenced by an excessive consumption of saturated fats.

The third class of macronutrients is represented by proteins. They are made of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and many other chemical compounds. Proteins are the result of smaller units called amino acids being put together and are naturally found in animal products and plants. After being broken down by the stomach’s enzymes, the body absorbs the amino acids and turns them into its kind of proteins. While it can make most of its amino acids, there are some types the body cannot produce by itself. People consume foods containing the absent amino acids to assimilate them. In the absence of these chemicals, the physical and mental development might suffer.

All three classes are good sources for daily calorie intake. Carbohydrates are the body’s energy suppliers. Fats support vitamin transportation. Proteins help us maintain a healthy figure by strengthening our muscles and keeping them lean. Consuming more foods from a particular class is not recommended. Regarding carbohydrates, polysaccharides are preferred because they provide the body with energy for longer. Unsaturated fats are the healthy counterpart of the saturated ones. When talking about proteins, animal products are regarded as their primary source. Aside from meat and cheese, people can obtain the necessary protein intake from vegetarian sources such as plants as well. Some of the most popular vegetables rich in proteins are soy, quinoa, beans and chickpeas.

Vegetarianism and veganism

The 20th century marked an epoch of tremendous changes. While most people are more familiar with the political, military and economic ones, society changed regarding fashion, spirituality and food as well. To assume that vegetarianism and veganism are this new would be false. These two food related approaches are millennial, even if they gained more popularity in the last 50 decades.

Vegetarianism is, as the name implies, the consumption of fruits and vegetables and abstinence from that of meat. Present day vegetarians do consume animal products such as dairy and eggs; some of them, the pescetarians, eat fish. Another diet, one that gains increasingly more followers in spite of being more severe, is called veganism, which implies abstinence from all kinds of animal products. In some cases, vegans avoid using clothes or any other object which might contain an animal part( skin, fur). While vegetarianism and veganism are relatively different, non-adepts usually regard them as being one and the same.  One of the first historical records of vegetarianism occurs in Homer and Herodotus. At that time, vegetarianism had a strong connection with religious views. Later, European monks made abstinence from meat compulsory. They wanted to support ascetic simplicity as well as encourage the spiritual practice. Today, many monasteries allow fish products as part of a monk’s diet. Various European philosophers, artists and scientists promoted this lifestyle. Leonardo da Vinci, Immanuel Kant or Leo Tolstoi are few of the personalities who adopted a vegetarian diet.[2]

On the Asian continent, the views on vegetarianism highlighted not the abstinence’s importance, but that of compassion shown to another living being. Adepts of various Hindu and Buddhist schools eliminated meat from their everyday lifestyle as a means to practice non-violence. Today, devotees of Krishna or Vishnu offer them their vegetarian food before eating it.

Veganism is somehow newer. The ancient Greeks and Hindus eliminated only meat from their diets, but continued eating eggs and dairy. The 1830s marked the period in which Sylvester Graham made its meatless Graham diet famous. The diet was comprised of fruits, vegetables and home-made bread. It was regarded as a real health remedy at the time.

Nowadays, both vegetarianism and veganism are very popular. A large number of people show concern about their health, animal cruelty and how much the waste material produced by slaughterhouses and factories negatively influence the environment. Regular individuals as well as Hollywood stars are animal rights activists.

There is, of course, this issue of whether vegetarians and vegans lack essential nutrients or not. The least restrictive vegetarian diet type is that which allows dairy, eggs and fish. The more restrictive one supposes the absence of all meat products. The one based only on fruits and vegetables is the most severe; some of its followers eat only raw foods. One should seek a specialist’s advice as to see whether the body is robust and healthy enough to becoming a vegetarian or vegan. There are situations when patients are required to temporary eliminate meat and dairy from the diet. This is done only under medical supervision. Most doctors advise their patients to avoid red meat, saturated fats or excessive consumption of eggs or dairy but allow any other food. As a result, cholesterol levels drop and the blood pressure is stabilized.[3]

Large protein amounts are found in meat. That is why, before deciding that a vegetarian or vegan diet is what one needs, the individual should consult a specialist. Many possible issues will be avoided with the help of a proper diet plan.[4][5]

Vegetarian and vegan protein sources

Most people are not very familiar with the fact that the whole food spectrum contains proteins as well as carbohydrates and fats, and not just one of them. Animal products have in their structure proteins and fats. Some plants are a sum of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. It is true that some chemical compounds are more present than others. Still, no food contains just one type of compounds. Maybe we would not be so inclined to put labels where they do not belong anymore if we had more information on the subject.

People are not usually interested in what one eats until he or she decides to follow a vegetarian diet. Everyone is suddenly concerned about the individual’s protein intake once the news is spread. It is ignorant to assume that only meat contains proteins because the mass-media promotes it as the primary protein source. There is a billion-dollar industry based on meat consumption. This should make one wonder why there is not such an aggressive fruit and vegetable advertising as well. Animal products are regarded as good protein sources. Their abundance on the market makes the fact even more believable. Even so, they also contain saturated fats. Red meat, cheese and eggs can raise the cholesterol levels if consumed often. Fortunately there are healthier alternatives. It should not be a surprise that vegetarianism and veganism gain followers, given that many plants are packed with proteins.

Nutritionists and consumers associate meat, with its proteins, saturated and unsaturated fats and cholesterol with a negative image. Various research projects have reached the conclusion that meat consumption can lead to diabetes, colon cancer or liver diseases. Even so, no one seems willing to reduce the meat intake. Disregarding its life-threaten status would mean making a conscious choice to invite illness in our bodies. It is no wonder that children are struggling with weight gain and diabetes, given the abundance of fast food chains. Unfortunately, some of them continue with this unhealthy lifestyle even after becoming independent adults. A modification in the diet is the key to a healthy body. A replacement of animal products with fruits and vegetables even for a few weeks can lower the cholesterol levels, positively influence the digestion and produce notable changes in one’s mood. American and European studies have shown the impact a vegetarian diet had against obesity and diabetes. Their results indicated that high processed meat intakes were associated with the occurrence of type II diabetes; the risk was lower in vegetarians and the lowest in vegans.

The following are the most popular vegetarian and vegan protein sources. It is important to make an appointment and, together with a nutritionist, establish a dietary plan by one’s body type. Fruits and vegetables should be eaten in moderation, in spite of being healthier alternatives to meat and dairy. Specialists in medicine and nutrition state that a balanced diet includes meat, dairy and eggs in addition to fruits and vegetables.[6][7]

  1. Beans

Not only are beans rich in nutrients, proteins and antioxidants, they also contain prebiotics. These tiny chemicals are of real value for the intestinal flora as they help the gas elimination and beneficial bacteria growth. They also include fibers which take longer to be broken down by the stomach’s enzymes. This allows for a gradual energy release so that people feel fuller for longer. Except for the occasional bloating sensation, beans are full of benefits. They are useful in combination to nearly any vegetable, are cheap and can be found at the market in any season. Common types include kidney beans, black and green beans and dry beans.

  1. Green peas

One cup of green peas contains as much protein as a cup of milk(about 8 grams) and almost 100% of the daily vitamin C intake. Just like in the case of beans, they contain fibers. What is particularly interesting about green peas is that they provide a particular polyphenol type called coumestrol. Polyphenols are chemical substances with high antioxidant properties. Introducing foods containing polyphenols in the diet is beneficial against the danger of oxidative stress. Coumestrol, the green peas’ polyphenol, is currently regarded as a strong stomach cancer combatant. It is also found in soy sprouts, pinto beans and alfalfa sprouts. Various American health organizations recommend green peas consumption as part of a healthy diet. They can be included in raw salads, combined with other vegetables as a side dish or prepared as soups.

  1. Chickpeas

Chickpeas are another type of peas that have gained quite a lot of popularity. They are packed with proteins, minerals, and extremely versatile in the kitchen. 100 grams of chickpeas contain 19 grams of proteins. That is more than 30% of the recommended daily protein intake. They are rich in manganese, which benefits the skin and bones, and folates, a water-soluble vitamin B ideal for tissue growth. Chickpeas are also low in calories and can be cooked in plenty of ways. More famous in southern Asia, especially India where 30% of the population is vegetarian, chickpeas have started to be appreciated by westerners as well for their nutritional value and taste.

  1. Soybeans and soy-based products

Soy is another plant rich in proteins. Soybeans are consumed by vegetarians and vegans but also by meat eaters because it contains all nine essential amino acid the body cannot produce by itself. Appreciated for its various uses, it is the basis for products such as soy milk, tempeh or tofu. The plant remains a controversial one, in spite of what its supporters claim. Given that some varieties are genetically modified, a diet rich in soy products may not be the most appropriate one. Some nutritionists direct their patients towards healthier choices. Soybeans contain large isoflavone amounts. Isoflavones are chemical compounds similar in structure with the human estrogen. A study on the subject of soy’s isoflavones and their impact on breast cancer pointed towards soy’s possible role in reducing the disease’s risk of occurrence. Most research is to be done in regards to the study’s accuracy.  Critics claim that a soy product excess can lead to serious health issues. Aside from isoflavones, the plant contains phytates and enzyme inhibitors. Both elements either impede or block mineral and protein absorption. Opinions on the use of soy in a vegetarian diet are diverse and often contradictory. Soybeans are as nourishing as any other plant-based food if eaten in moderation.

  1. Chia seeds

Chia seeds are an easy and funny way of adding protein to the diet. Aside from containing iron and zinc, chia is the plant with the highest omega three fatty acid levels. Chia seeds are a good choice when one wants to replace fish with a vegetarian product. When soaked in liquids, they form a gelatinous outer layer. They can be sprinkled over salads, mixed with yogurt or turned into desserts.

  1. Sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and poppy seeds

These seed varieties are both more commonly known and used than chia seeds. They may not be as nutritious, but represent great iron, magnesium and healthy fat sources. People should not disregard their efficacy just because they are not as exotic as chia seeds. There is a reason why medicine people have been using them for millennia to cure various diseases. Try mixing them in salads or integrate them in desserts.

  1. Broccoli and asparagus

Both vegetables contain around 4 grams of proteins per cup, fibers and vitamin B analogs. Many vegetarian diet critics oppose this lifestyle because of a noticeable absence of foods rich in vitamin B. while not packed with it, broccoli and asparagus do contribute to the daily dose of nutrients, including vitamin B.

  1. Seitan

Seitan, made from wheat’s main protein-gluten, is another alternative to both meat and soy-based products. Chinese and Japanese people use it as a substitute for meat because its chewy, flavored texture resembles that of poultry. People with gluten sensitivity should avoid consuming seitan. There is a broad range of vegetables rich in proteins from which they can pick.

  1. Spirulina

Spirulina is another popular super food. This blue-green alga is one of the first life forms on Earth. In millions of years of existence, it is understandable how it gained so many vitamins and minerals. If tomorrow the whole food spectrum were to be extinct and only spirulina and water remained, they would have been enough for the human species to survive. Spirulina contains only 8 of the nine essential amino acids, but is richer in proteins than most foods, red meat and poultry included. It contains Omega fatty acids, vitamin B 12 analogs and other substances with antioxidant properties. Spirulina is sold in drug stores either as powder or pills.

Other vegetarian foods containing proteins are hemp seeds, quinoa(the only plant, except for soy, that contains all nine essential amino acids), yellow corn, potatoes, spinach, oats, rice and couscous.[8]

Vitamin B 12 deficiency

One of the problems vegetarians and vegans face is that of vitamin B 12 deficiency. Also known as cobalamin, it is essential for the red blood cell formation. Its absence leads to anemia, memory issues and possible nerve damage. Cobalamin is produced in the gut of animals or through bacterial fermentation-synthesis, a process taking place in factories. Because of this, vitamin B 12 can only be found in animal products or as supplements. Incorrect information possibly promoted by vegetarians and vegans stated that cobalamin could also be found in soybeans and algae. The compound found in spirulina, for example, is not cobalamin, but one of its analogs, called cobamide. The negative aspect of cobamides is that they act as enzymes. Instead of supplying the body with something similar to vitamin B 12, cobamide increases the body’s need for it. Nutritionists advise vegetarians and especially vegans to use the vitamin B 12 supplements available on the market. Our well-being depends on the health of both body and mind. Because they are so strongly connected, they unavoidably influence each other. When adopting new dietary habits, one should consider both aspects.[9]

A healthy diet contains all types of food. Everything, from meat to cheese and from fruits to vegetables contributes to the body’s nutrients supply. There are indeed the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices. Lean meat is better than red meat. Natural, unsweetened yogurts and goat cheese are good alternatives to processed cheese. Fruits are the sweet and healthy counterpart of desserts packed with calories. Our well-being is influenced by these small but significant choices. While the risk of developing cancer and diabetes is higher in meat eaters, studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans can as well suffer from severe medical conditions. Fruits and vegetables are indeed associated with a more positive image. Even so, it is important to note that many vegetarians and vegans are not properly educated on what such diets imply. Vitamin deficiency, anemia or bloating frequently occur. They can lead to more severe issues if not treated in time. Vegetarianism is bound to become even more popular shortly. An increased fruit and vegetable consumption automatically implies that animal products will be needed less. The diet is animal and environment-friendly and, all in all, has more benefits to it than disadvantages. With additional information on the subject, people could more easily integrate vegetarian dietary habits in their day-to-day life.[10][11]

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