by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
The New Year is here! What better time to consider making a change to a vegetarian diet while you reflect on something you can do in this new year to improve not only your health, but the environment as well!
I have been following a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (diet includes dairy, eggs, grains, legumes, veggies and fruit) for the last 30 years of my life.
I became vegetarian for a variety of reasons, but my first concern was with the unethical treatment of animals, and secondly, what animals ate and how that was passed on to the consumers like myself. I had read John Robbins Diet for a New America at the time which provided me with information and details about the treatment of animals, the politics about the meat and dairy industry, and the environmental impact of eating animals. John Robbins is and continues to be a long time advocate for vegetarian/vegan diets. I recall reflecting on a quote of the playwright George Bernard Shaw’s when I made the diet change— “animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.” I did not become vegetarian overnight; it was a gradual transition for me to change over. I eliminated all red meat and pork initially, then several years later, I stopped eating poultry, and several years after that, all seafood. I have never chosen to become vegan since I feel I have been fortunate enough to know about the sources of my dairy products and eggs, including the diet of the animals from these farms and how they are treated. I support small local producers of these products as much as I can.
Many people are overwhelmed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian since they wonder if it will be a challenge to get enough protein and many other basic nutrients required for optimal health. It can be daunting initially, but the right information and resources (health professionals, books etc.) can help. I always stress to people that transitioning to the vegetarian diet does not have to happen all at once, unless you feel it has to be done that way. It can be done in stages and even small changes have an impact!! I know many people who commit to consume animal products just a couple of times a week, and choose from plant-based protein sources the remainder of the time. Of course that is not a vegetarian diet, but there are positive impacts. I have written briefly about some of the most common nutrition concerns with vegetarian diets below and how to address those areas of concern. It really does not take a lot of effort, but it does require planning. Of course you really do have to like a wide variety of vegetables, all different colors, shapes and sizes!!
Protein is made up of different amino acids which play a key role in production and repair of different parts of the body, such as the skin, hair, muscles and bones. It is actually easy to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. The main thing to remember is that protein should come from a variety of sources which include dairy products, eggs, legumes or beans and nuts and seeds. I often see people using just dairy as the main source of protein. That offsets the health benefits, so preferably set a goal of eating different sources of vegetable and animal proteins throughout the week. It was once thought that different vegetable proteins (which contained different amino acids) had to be combined at one meal. Now we know that as long as we eat enough variety and calories in our diet that these amino acids can be stored in the liver, so we don’t have to focus on mixing different protein sources (known as complementation) at one meal. The average adult needs approximately 0.4 grams per pound of body weight which calculates out to be about 60 grams daily (though this recommendation will vary based on any special health or medical circumstances). One cup of yogurt or milk provides 8 grams of protein, ½ cup of cooked beans provides about 9-10 grams and 4 oz. mashed extra firm tofu provides about 12 grams. Concentrate on eating a protein source at each meal and not filling your diet with lots of high calorie, low nutrient-dense foods like chips and sweets.
Iron is typically found naturally in red meat and it does take some planning to ensure adequate iron intake in a vegetarian diet but it is found in many commonly consumed vegetarian foods. Some of the best sources of iron for vegetarians are dried beans such as black beans and kidney beans, dark green vegetables, dried fruits such as prunes and apricots, whole grains and iron fortified foods such as cereal and bread. Eating sources of Vitamin C along with iron rich foods such as citrus fruits, cantaloupe, broccoli, kiwis, bell peppers and fortified juices at a meal help with absorption of iron at mealtimes. Using cast iron cookware, preferably lightly seasoned, also helps to add to your iron intake.
The recommended intake for vitamin B-12 for adults and children is very low but it is a crucial nutrient for good health so vegetarians should be aware of good sources. It is unlike other B-Vitamins in that is it is stored in the body. It is found only in animal products so if you choose to become a vegan it is even more of a challenge since that diet doesn’t include any animal products (i.e. dairy products or eggs). If you consume dairy products and/or eggs daily it generally is not a problem. If you don’t consume dairy or eggs, make sure you include vegetarian products such as B-12 fortified cereals, fortified soy milk or other non-dairy milks. Read food labels to discover if other food products you buy contain Vitamin B-12. Tempeh (fermented soy product), nutritional yeast, and sea vegetables are not reliable sources of B-12. To be on the safe side, if your animal product intake is limited, use a supplement—preferably non-animal derived. Blood tests for B-12 levels can be obtained easily if you ever question your level of intake.
It can be a challenge to obtain adequate amounts of calcium, but it can be done without too much of a problem. Of course, dairy products are good sources of calcium. Other great choices of calcium include kale, collards, sea vegetables, broccoli, calcium fortified juices, tofu prepared with calcium salts (look at label to ensure calcium is added, it should include 15 to 25% calcium) and fortified non-dairy drinks such as almond, soy or oat milk, etc. Kale not only contains calcium but Vitamin K which helps to strengthen bones.
Not everyone is ready to embark on a vegetarian diet and that is fine. Some people feel better when they eat more animal protein, and that can definitely be the case. Whatever you choose to follow, it still is wise to eat a combination of different proteins from both plant and animal sources and see what it feels like to reduce your intake of animal protein. Remember much of the world eats far less animal protein than Americans do and they rely more on vegetable protein sources since they have neither access nor the resources to consume high amounts of animal protein.