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For ethical reasons, I’ve been considering a switch over to a vegetarian diet. I’ve read a lot about the benefits of the diet – weight loss, more energy, lowered risk of heart disease and cancer – but are there any risks of a vegetarian diet and if so, how can these be overcome?

Smartliving Guest asked this
July 15, 2011 at 1:36 PM

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Coaches
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You are absolutely on target with the benefits you have listed for a vegetarian diet. Yet just as with any eating plan (yes, even those with meat), you must make wise choices to ensure you are getting all of the nutrients your body needs. Whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore, you could choose to build your diet around macaroni and cheese and live on this single food alone – yet how wise of a choice would that be?

When wise choices are made, even the American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org) can’t deny that a vegetarian diet can meet all of our nutrient needs. In fact, for the first time ever even the Dietary Guidelines are encouraging a plant-based diet! When it comes to nutrition, meatless meal-plans tend to be higher in fiber, Vitamins C and E, iron, magnesium, folic acid, heart healthy fats, and disease fighting antioxidants. While veggie diets are rich in many nutrients, they also tend to be lower in calories, unhealthy fats, Vitamin D and B12, calcium, iron, and zinc.

To be sure your diet is filled with enough of the right nutrients fill your meals with a variety of wholesome foods, while limiting those high in unhealthy fats (saturated or trans) and sugars. If you are not sure what a balanced meal plan looks like, visit www.MyPyramid.gov to learn more.

NUTRITION FOR A VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN DIET.

The nutrients of concern will vary depending on the level of vegetarianism you are opting for. Here are a few to consider:

Vitamin B12. Vegans you will need to pay attention to vitamin B12 as it is only found in animal products and fortified foods. This energizing nutrient is added to many cereals, meal bars, and even nutritional yeast – a delicious cheese-like addition to air-popped popcorn. Yet even if you are consuming a variety of fortified foods, I would still advise anyone following a 100% vegan diet to add a B12 supplement to their routine. For vegetarians still dining on animal-based dairy products you are more than likely getting enough B12 in your diet already.

Vitamin D is found in fortified soy products as well as your skin! Vitamin D has been added to soy, rice, hemp, and almond milks, OJ, cereal, and even margarine. Dairy products are good sources of calcium, Vitamin D, and complete protein. So if you don't eat milk or eggs, you need to look elsewhere for these nutrients.

Protein. There is an enormous misconception that it is impossible to obtain enough protein on a vegetarian diet. Another myth is that vegetarians need to combine proteins in order to get enough of the right amino acids. Let me set the record straight, if you are eating enough calories through a balanced and varied diet, your protein needs can easily be met (80-100 grams for vegans) – no combining necessary.

Plant-based protein sources include beans, nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, dried peas, soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers), lentils, and plant-based dairy products. Of course lacto-ovo vegetarians may also rely on animal-based dairy products and eggs for additional protein sources as well. Many are surprised to learn that protein is even found in whole grain cereals, bread, leafy greens, potatoes, and corn! Every little bit counts.

Iron. This mineral helps sustain our energy by delivering oxygen throughout our body. Iron sources for vegetarians include, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, molasses, whole wheat breads, peas, some dried fruits (dried apricots, prunes, raisins), dark leafy greens (chard, spinach, beet greens), blackstrap molasses, bulgur, prune juice, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Plant based iron is not as easily absorbed as the form found in meat. To overcome this challenge we can improve absorption by adding vitamin C. Enjoy a glass or OJ with your fortified cereal in the morning, top your spinach salad with sliced bell pepper, and cook your tomato-based pasta dish in a cast-iron skillet to ensure your body is able to absorb enough iron. ** Calcium.** Vegetarians can easily meet their calcium needs with fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, tofu, and soy milk. This mineral is also found naturally in almonds, broccoli, and some dark green leafy vegetables (turnip greens, collard greens, kale, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens).

Again if you are still planning to include animal-based dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, by including the recommended 3-A-Day you are covering all of your bases. . Zinc. Zinc may help boost our immune system and is crucial for a variety of biochemical reactions to take place within our body. Sources of zinc for vegetarians include beans, fortified cereals and meal bars, oatmeal, wheat germ, and pumpkin seeds. Milk products are a zinc source for lacto vegetarians.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. These heart-healthy fats are encouraged for all diet types, primarily through fatty fish. Yet if you are not a pescetarian, fish is not an option for you. In place of fish opt for two servings of plant-based omega-3 fats, such as ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and hemp seeds.

I hope this has helped to ease your mind as you consider making the leap over to a vegetarian diet, though if you are feeling overwhelmed just remember that no one is perfect. Rather than quitting animal products cold turkey, aim for skipping meat three days each week. Once you have accomplished that, move to four, then five… There is a terrific movement out there called Meatless Mondays (www.meatlessmonday.com ) promoting just that – I encourage you to check it out!

Jessica Corwin MPH RDN Health Coach answered
July 15, 2011 at 4:29 PM
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