The vegetarian lifestyle has become immensely popular, especially in Austin. As physicians, this is an exciting prospect for us. Don’t misunderstand. We don’t necessarily encourage the lifestyle, as it can be difficult to maintain and onerous to many. However, a plant-based diet can be very healthy, if properly administered.
There are a few pitfalls, though. Take Vitamin B12, for instance. It is a water-soluble vitamin, critical to neurologic function, DNA synthesis, red blood cell production, intestinal absorption, etc. It can not be manufactured in our bodies and must be ingested. In nature, B12 is available only in meat. It can, however, be obtained from supplements or fortified cereals. Strict vegetarians must supplement this vitamin and are at risk of significant complications if they don’t.
This also extends to exclusively breastfed children of vegetarian mothers! Your infant son or daughter is relying on your breastmilk’s B12 supply, among many other important factors. Be sure to discuss your diet with your physician.
Vegetarians must also be careful to supplement iodine, certain fatty acids, zinc, calcium, iron, and protein.
Another pitfall is the assumption that “vegetarian” = healthy. There are plenty of vegetarian dishes (especially in restaurants) that are far from healthy. Vegetarians must be as careful with calorie intake as omnivores.
For anyone who is vegetarian or vegan- congratulations! You’re doing your heart a great service. Keep it up, but talk to us about the pitfalls, so we can minimize complications and keep you on a healthy path.
If you’re careful to avoid non-organic/GMO products, that’s a perfectly legitimate decision. The primary pitfalls, however, are cost and short shelf life of these products. As with many choices in life, you have to weigh risk/benefit and your personal priorities.