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Health benefits -- Do vegetarians live longer? -- Dietary needs

What is vegetarianism?

Vegetarians are people who do not eat meat products and may also not consume dairy products or eggs. They may do so for health reasons or for philosophical and moral reasons. Some people, such as Seventh Day Adventists, are vegetarians because of their religious beliefs. Many people eat plant foods simply because they are cheaper than animal products.

There are three main types of vegetarians: lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat dairy foods and eggs; lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy foods, but no eggs; and vegans who consume no animal foods of any type.

What are the health benefits of vegetarianism?

According to registered dietitian Johanna Dwyer of Tufts University Medical School and the New England Medical Center Hospital in Boston, data is strong that vegetarians are at lesser risk of:

  • obesity
  • lung cancer
  • alcoholism
  • atonic [reduced muscle tone] constipation
Dwyer says evidence is good for lower risks for:
  • hypertension
  • coronary artery disease
  • type II diabetes
  • gallstones
Dwyer says data are only fair to poor for lower risks of:
  • breast cancer
  • diverticular disease of the colon
  • colonic cancer
  • calcium kidney stones
  • osteoporosis
  • dental erosion
  • dental caries

Do vegetarians live longer?

Dwyer says vegetarians' longevity is equal to or greater than that of non-vegetarians, but is influenced in Western countries by healthy lifestyle habits, such as not smoking, abstaining or practicing moderation in alcohol use, exercising, getting enough rest and seeking help for health problems.

What special dietary needs to vegetarians have?

As with any diet, it's important for the vegetarian diet to include many different foods, since no one food contains all the nutrients needed for good health.

Of particular concern may be calcium, iron, riboflavin, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12, for example, occurs only in animal foods. The Institute of Food Technologists recommends that vegetarians who don't eat dairy foods take calcium supplements, especially during pregnancy, when breast-feeding. Also have infants and children take the supplements.

Unless advised otherwise by a doctor, people taking dietary supplements should limit the dose to 100 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance.

Here are some suggestions from the FDA of non-animal substitutes for those nutrients most likely to be lacking from vegetarian diets:
  • vitamin B12: fortified soy beverages and cereals

  • vitamin D: fortified soy beverages and sunshine

  • calcium: tofu processed with calcium, broccoli, seeds, nuts, kale, bok choy, legumes (peas and beans), greens, lime-processed tortillas, and calcium-enriched soy beverages, grain products and orange juice.

  • iron: legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, whole grains and iron-fortified cereals and breads, especially whole wheat. Iron absorption is improved by vitamin C, found in citrus fruits/juices, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, peppers, dark-green leafy vegetables and potatoes with skins.

  • zinc: whole grains (especially the germ and bran), whole wheat bread, legumes, nuts and tofu.

  • protein: tofu and other soy-based products, legumes, seeds, nuts, grains and vegetables.

Source: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

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