This is what the American Heart Association has to say about vegetarian diets (on their website, www.heart.org):
“Vegetarian diets are low in animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, and some forms of cancer.”
The AHA does caution people on a vegetarian regimen to eat “enough important nutrients” and avoid too many calories.
To vegetarians who are often challenged about not receiving enough protein or told they are denying themselves quality animal protein, the heart association supplies information to the contrary. The AHA clearly states that neither animal nor plant protein is superior to the other. “You don’t need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.”
They also state that soy is a great source of protein. In addition, a combination of vegetables, seeds, whole grains, nuts and legumes throughout the day can provide all of the essential and non-essential amino acids.
Vitamin deficiencies can be a concern for some vegetarians, as many vitamins are found in abundance in meat products. Iron and B12 deficiencies can be a serious concern for vegetarians, as they are most abundant in meat and eggs. The AHA states that dried beans, spinach, dried fruits, enriched and fortified products can provide these nutrients.
Calcium can be another concern for strict vegans. However, according to the AHA, studies also show that vegetarians absorb and retain MORE calcium than meat eaters. Leafy green vegetables and some legumes and soy products are excellent sources of calcium.
Sunlight provides vitamin D, but a supplement may be necessary if you live in a gloomy climate. Nuts and grains can provide adequate amounts of zinc.
It is, of course, a good idea to avoid white flour/sugar, alcohol and fatty/fried foods, even though they are usually considered vegetarian. These foods do not provide any significant amount of nutrients and instead, provide a lot of excess fat and calories that your body does not need. To get the nutrients your body truly needs to function well, focus on whole and natural foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and soy.