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Getting The Most Out Of A Vegetarian Diet

Rick Ligthelm/

Healthy living expert Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber weighs in on vegetarianism and some of the difficulties that people struggle with while attempting to maintain a plant-based diet.

On getting the most out of a vegetarian diet

"Vegetarian is a reasonable diet but it has to come with an understanding of nutrition. Vegetarian can help decrease the incidents of heart disease, it can help decrease the incidents of cancer, however, you have to be very cognizant of what exactly vegetarian means. So many times I have the impression that what I think is vegetarian is actually what my patients are doing. But when I ask for a 24-hour diet history and really get an understanding of what they’re actually eating, a vegetarian diet can also mean a bag of chips and a can of soda. I’m thinking they’ve got the eggplant going, and the kale and yeah, no. So vegetarian candy is good but it needs to be done in the right manner.  It’s sometimes too easy for the vegetarian to forego the protein because they can’t quite figure it out, especially if they’re new to vegetarianism, especially if they’re young, or if they don’t have a lot of family support. They just don’t quite understand that even as a vegetarian you have to get all five food groups. It’s a little bit more difficult to figure out the protein needs."

On incorporating all five food groups

"I think what was new was the recognition that yes indeed, there can indeed be a decrease in heart disease and cancer from a plant-based diet. We have to be cognizant of the difference in nutrition from folks who say they are vegetarian. So being much more cognizant of exactly what they’re eating and pushing to make sure they’re still incorporating the other food groups. In fact, one of the concerns was that somebody who’s a strict vegan for example, vegan meaning someone who doesn’t eat any animal products, one of the concerns is that it’s very, very hard to get some of the nutrients, things like calcium for example. You have to be very conscious of what you’re eating and the amounts in all of those foods so that you don’t decrease your bone health. We’ve found in some of the strict vegans is that there was almost a 30% increase in their fracture rate as they aged. So recognizing what the food groups are and why each of those are important is definitely the most important thing. Both the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recognize that good healthy eating usually incorporates low-fat dairy and non-red meat but the Academy of Nutrition and Dieticians do support vegetarian diets. Again, with the caveat that you understand the basics of nutrition and I’ve learned a little about why each of the food groups is important."

On recommending vegetarianism

"I recommend to almost everybody that they’re very mindful of what they’re eating and how it impacts their health. Whether they’re strict vegetarians or not is not really the issue. It’s more about what they’re putting in. Even though vegetarian diet can be helpful for some, it has to be done in the right way. So that’s my struggle with patients who are drinking lots of sweetened beverages or eating a lot of processed foods, to try to give them other alternatives so that in general, their overall diet can be healthy whether it’s a strict plant-based diet or not."

Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber is a professor at the IU School of Medicine, where she's also the executive director for the National Center of Excellence in Women's Health.