According to the Malaysian Food Pyramid, a varied and well-balanced diet should consist of food sources from all food groups. However, in certain cases, such as due to religious or cultural purposes, some families may opt to go on a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians can get most of the essential nutrients that they need, as long as they take in the right kinds of foods, in the proper amounts.
There are three common categories of vegetarians, the lacto-ovo-vegetarians who consume eggs, dairy products, and plant foods; the lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy products and plant foods, but not eggs; and vegans, who only eat plant foods (no eggs and dairy products).
It is indeed possible for the three types of vegetarians to obtain good nutrition. To achieve this, it is important that a combination of foods from the food groups be consumed.
There are times when people who go on a strict vegetarian diet such as the vegan diet, in which they only consume plant-based foods, could be deficient in some nutrients. Nevertheless, it can be managed with proper advice from a nutritionist/dietitian and a medical doctor. Some of the nutritional deficiencies that may occur, but which are avoidable, include: –
- Insufficient iron intake
- Insufficient calcium and vitamin D, if they remove milk and dairy products from the diet.
- Insufficient vitamin B-12, zinc.
- Lack of sufficient quality protein sources.
Vegetarians need to pay more attention to their diet, to ensure that they get all their essential nutrients from the foods that they eat. For example, to get enough protein in their diet, vegetarians should consume a combination of both cereal products (eg wheat, rice) and legumes (eg dhal, lentils, soy beans, peas).
There are also fortified foods (eg fortified cereals, fruit juice) that could supply the adequate requirements of micronutrients such as vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and iron. A special dietary plan may need to be considered for vegans due to limited food availability. If dietary intake is too restrictive, seek the advice of a nutritionist or dietitian for the need of dietary supplements.