Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarians and Vegans
An abundance of research is being conducted to help answer the question: is meat safe for consumption? Many medical professionals are keen to understand how a person’s diet can help improve the health situation in North America, which seems to be ridden with epidemics such as cancer, autism and diabetes. The results of many of these efforts are leading a growing number of people to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
A telephone poll was conducted in the United States by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2011, looking to understand how often US residents eat vegetarian meals. It found that “2% of Americans say they are vegetarian while 3% say they are vegan.”
As a growing share of Americans consider the health benefits of a diet without animal products, there are often concerns that omitting meats (and in the case of vegans, eggs and dairy) will results in deficiencies of essential minerals, proteins, fatty acids, and thus limit development of muscles, bones and other body tissues.
Many claim that vegetarian and vegan diets, if comprised of a variety of fresh (and, if possible, organic) fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts, will provide the body with all of the essential nutrients. Yet, many ex-vegetarians will site that lack of energy and general tiredness has led them back to eating meat.
There is very little public education about which types of natural foods provide alternatives to the protein and minerals we obtain from meat, so unless you’re a nutritionist, switching to a meat-less and dairy-less diet might indeed be risky.
The following offers insight into what types of nutrients the body obtains from meat, and how to go about replacing them with plant based foods.
Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids and are used as building blocks for the body’s tissue, such as muscle, organs, and bones. Proteins also carry energy, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus and some iron to the body. The FDA and other health organizations recommend that adults and children over the age of four consume at least 50 grams of protein every day (based on a 2000 calories a day diet). Natural foods such as peas, beans, lentils, nuts, oatmeal, soybeans, peanuts, spinach, and wheat are rich in protein and help with tissue building. Dairy products such as milk, eggs and yogurt are also a good protein source.
Many are concerned that vegetarian kids do not get enough protein, considering the rapid growth that takes place during infancy, childhood and adolescence. Consider some kid friendly favorites such as edamame (Japanese soybean), refried pinto beans, lentil burgers, almond/raisin/oatmeal trail mix, and hummus. Also, don’t be afraid to try new recipes from books such as Deceptively Delicious, which has a killer recipes for kids like spinach brownies and zucchini cupcakes.
One of the important aspects of switching to a plant-based protein diet and moving away from animal products is to introduce a variety of protein-rich natural foods into the diet. Variety is important because most plants and grains do not provide complete proteins, as do animal products. This means that plants and grains may contain only a few essential amino acids, and lack others altogether. Some plants will have lower proportions of certain amino acids when compared to other plants. Although animal and dairy products provide complete proteins, plant protein sources lack the saturated fat (artery-clogging fat) and cholesterol content that you will find in meat and dairy.
Whole grains, such as barley, brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa are a perfect supplement to a diet rich in plant protein. Bran is another good source of protein, vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and essential fatty acids, and can be added to shakes and veggie burgers. Bran is the hard outer layer of whole grains, such as brown rice and whole wheat flour, so try to stay away from white rice or white flour when possible, where the bran has been removed.
Another important aspect of getting adequate levels of protein from natural foods is to increase the calorie intake when compared to meat proteins. Plant foods have a lower percentage of calories from protein, when compared to animal products, therefore you need to eat more to get the same levels of protein in the diet. Keep in mind, though, that legumes contain higher percentage of calories from protein when compared to other plant foods. Therefore, try to include a wide variety of beans in your diet. As an added bonus, beans are high in antioxidants, which help rid the body of free radicals, preventing illness and promoting healthier cell life.
Omega 3 Fatty Acid
Omega 3 fatty acid is an amino acid that offers several health benefits, including reducing inflammation, lowering cholesterol levels, preventing blood clots, and more. This amino acid is also needed for a healthy nervous system. For fish lovers, lack of omega 3 fatty acid is not a problem as fish are rich in omega 3. There are also various supplements such as Krill Oil supplements to aid vegetarians in obtaining a healthy dose of Omega 3. For vegans, flax seed is one of the best natural sources of omega 3 fatty acids. Flax seed can be ground and added to smoothies, yogurts and baked goods, while flax seed oil can be used in homemade salad dressings. Raw walnuts are also a good natural source of omega 3 fatty acids.
Animal proteins are typically bound with vitamin B12, which detaches from the proteins in the stomach with the use of acids and enzymes. Proteins found in saliva and stomach secretions move the B12 vitamin into the small intestines where it is absorbed into the blood stream. B12 is then stored in the liver and muscles. The good news for new vegans is that humans need very little B12 and the body stores it for many years. Nevertheless, many mainstream nutritionists and doctors will claim that a plant-based diet does not offer adequate levels of B12. Brewer’s yeast, soy beverages and fortified cereals are good sources of vitamin B12, with the latter two also a good source of vitamin D.
Minerals are essential building blocks for the body, enabling the body to regulate its processes such as making blood. Minerals are also necessary for generating bone and tissue in the body. Iron deficiency is a common problem for new vegetarians, because iron from meat and fish is absorbed 2 or 3x faster than iron from plants. It is suggested that vegans and vegetarians supplement with vitamin C when eating iron-rich foods such as spinach, dried peas, beans, whole wheat, celery, cabbage, oats, cereals, lettuce, raisins, apples and lentils. Vegetarians can also turn to eggs and milk as good sources of iron. A good rule of thumb when you want to increase your iron intake is to think green – eat a large variety of green leafy vegetables.
Calcium is another mineral typically found in fortified milk, dairy and other meat products. Calcium builds bones and teeth, although we do still need fluorine (cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, potatoes, spinach) and silica (barley, oats, cabbage, onions, oatmeal) in our diet for healthy bone development. Broccoli, sesame seeds, seaweed, and kale are some of the healthiest sources of calcium. Additionally, calcium enriched soy, rice, almond or other milk substitute are great calcium rich additions to cereals and various recipes that call for milk. Calcium can also be found in turnip greens, collard greens, rhubarb, spinach, oatmeal, tofu, swiss chard, almonds, baked beans, cabbage, oranges and other citrus fruits.
A balanced diet including a variety of nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables is vital to a healthy body. One must also be aware that the intake of certain other foods such as processed meats, processed packaged foods and refined sugar should be limited, if not eliminated entirely from a person’s diet. For example, eating refined white sugar results in the loss of minerals from the blood, bones and tissue in the body. Taking a bowl of oatmeal and dousing it with white sugar and milk results in oatmeal fermenting in the stomach (caused by the milk), and it being depleted of its nutritional value. But healthy solutions always exist. For example, adding Grade B organic maple syrup and bananas into oatmeal, or cooking oatmeal with raisins, will offer sweet results without diminishing the meal’s health benefits.
If you were raised on a meat-based diet, with lots of refined sugars and packaged foods but few vegetable dishes, a switch can be challenging. It’s easy to envision that vegetarian meals consist of boring salads, bland cooked grains and simple veggie sides. Luckily, the internet provides us with numerous (and free!) resources for how to prepare delicious vegetarian and vegan meals.
There are many reasons for following a vegan or vegetarian diet:
– Modern day factory farming of meat animals is done under atrocious conditions.
– Many are looking to improve their health or treat chronic illness.
– There are growing concerns about the presence of contaminants, germs and certain types of bacteria in meat, as well the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms.
– Concerns exist about the putrefaction of foods in the stomach caused by digesting meat.
Whatever your reason for moving towards a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to consume a wide variety and volume of natural and plant foods to stay healthy and give the body what it needs.
Here are some vegetarian and vegan recipe resources:
Read more articles by Anna Hunt.
About the Author
Anna Hunt is writer, yoga instructor, mother of three, and lover of healthy food. She’s the founder of Awareness Junkie, an online community paving the way for better health and personal transformation. She’s also the co-editor at Waking Times, where she writes about optimal health and wellness. Anna spent 6 years in Costa Rica as a teacher of Hatha and therapeutic yoga. She now teaches at Asheville Yoga Center and is pursuing her Yoga Therapy certification. During her free time, you’ll find her on the mat or in the kitchen, creating new kid-friendly superfood recipes.
Kloss, Jethro. Back to Eden – Healing Herbs, Home Remedies, Diet & Health. 1971.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods – Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. 2002.
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