The Healthy Vegetarian
For years, general health guidelines suggested that individuals could not get all the nutrients they need when following a strict vegetarian diet. Vegetarians were considered by nutritionists to be “at nutritional risk” due to potential deficiencies of essential nutrients. But finally, the tables have turned.
Recent research has shown that populations who eat a vegetarian diet not only can meet their nutrient needs, but also have a lower incidence of chronic diseases typical of Western societies. Rates of cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and diverticulosis are lower among vegetarians when compared to their meat-eating counterparts.
Vegetarians come in many forms.
Some individuals consider themselves vegetarian, but eat fish. Some don’t eat animal flesh, but eat eggs and dairy. Still others avoid any food made with or from animals or animal products. Therefore, strategies for meeting nutrient needs vary, depending upon the definition of “vegetarian” used by each individual.
While a nutritionally complete diet is possible for all vegetarians, individuals accepting this lifestyle change must eat smart. Following a Western diet, but “without the meat” is not always an adequate strategy for meeting the nutrient needs that meat provides. And during a time when controversial high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are getting all the press, some “vegetarian” diets may pose just the opposite problem. Ordering a portabello mushroom sandwich and a salad for lunch as a vegetarian choice may provide all carbohydrates without any protein, guaranteeing energy and mood swings later in the afternoon.
Balance and moderation is vital for vegetarians.
As always, “balance and moderation” is vital for vegetarians. When removing animal protein, care must be taken to ensure that a balance of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats are provided in each meal or snack as a means of moderating blood sugar, energy and satiety. The portabello mushroom will offer delicious flavor to the sandwich, but will not provide much in the way of protein. Accenting the sandwich with a bean salad, barley or lentil soup or a glass of dairy or soymilk will balance the meal with dietary protein. Other protein sources include all other legumes, nuts, seeds, nut butters, cheeses, yogurt, tofu, tempeh, whole grains such as quinoa, and eggs.
True vegans who eat no animal products at all generally require vitamin B 12 supplementation, as it is only found in animal foods. In the past, popular literature suggested that miso, tempeh, tamari, sea vegetables and some greens were adequate vitamin B 12 sources due to either their fermentation status, or to healthy contamination with vitamin B 12 producing bacteria. However, research has shown that these foods do not consistently provide vitamin B 12, and that even if the vitamin is present, it is generally in an analogue form not easily used by the body. Therefore, all vegans should proactively consume foods fortified with vitamin B 12 as indicated on the food label. Fortified products include breakfast cereals, fortified meat substitute products and fortified soy and grain milks. If such foods are not eaten with regularity, vegans should take a vitamin B 12 supplement to ensure they receive this essential nutrient.
Another nutrient to consider is vitamin D. Found generally in the food supply in fortified dairy products, vitamin D is also produced in our bodies from adequate sun exposure to skin. For vegetarians who do not use dairy products and whose local climate or lifestyle does not provide regular bouts of sunshine, supplementation may be warranted.
Variety is key.
In addition to balance and moderation, individuals following a vegetarian lifestyle should also be sure to have variety in their diet. Top food allergens are dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, seafood and wheat, and the vegetarian’s over-reliance on any one of these foods as a calorie or protein source may result in an eventual intolerance or sensitivity. Therefore, using soy milk for breakfast, tofu at lunch, tempeh at dinner and edamame as a snack, for some sensitive individuals, may push the soy envelope to the extreme. In this example, enjoying a variety of soy products over the course of a week, and incorporating other protein food sources each day may be a better option.
Concerned with whether or not your vegetarian diet is meeting all of your needs? A registered dietitian can help by completing a quick diet assessment. For specific life cycle needs, such as childhood growth or pregnancy, a nutrition professional can also support your healthy dietary goals.
Important nutrients for anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet:
|Nutrient ||Food sources |
Fortified breads and cereals
Legumes (lentils, garbanzo beans, pinto beans, etc.)
Dried apricots, prunes, raisins
Sea vegetables (dulse, alaria, kelp, nori)
Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
Dairy milk, cheese, yogurt
Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
Brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter
Tahini, tofu, tempeh
Sea vegetables (nori, kelp)
|Calcium||Dairy milk, fortified soy or rice milks, cheese, yogurts |
Calcium-processed tofu (check label)
Turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, fortified orange juice
Almonds, tahini, sesame seeds
Legumes, blackstrap molasses
Dried figs, sea vegetables (dulse)
*To optimize iron absorption from non-animal food sources, be sure to eat a food rich in vitamin C at the same time. Vitamin C sources include citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, papaya, mangoes, guava and honeydew.
- Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis, RD and Vesanto Melina, MS, RD
- The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets by Mark Messina and Virginia Messina
- Feeding the Whole Family cookbook by Cynthia Lair. It's not vegetarian, but includes only a few fish/poultry recipes and is a great resource.
- Any of the Moosewood Cookbooks by Mollie Katzen.
Writer: Debra Boutin, RD, Nutrition Coordinator
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