(Most people here are not vegetarians but neither are we opposed to people who choose to be. It just needs to come with some balanced information. There is considerable misinformation, and some good information, available online. It is often difficult for people to be objective because it is a philosophy! We will attempt here to give a brief nutritional summary of possible considerations.)
Being a vegetarian is a philosophical choice. Our bodies have been built to function with a combination of meat and veggies, etc. That is its natural nutritional choice. To become a vegetarian is to alter the historical nutritional input of your body. This is ‘do-able’, but it is good to be aware of the changes.
A person may shun meat for religious, health, animal welfare or environmental reasons. If a person decides to do so, they should be aware of potential nutritional adjustments they may need to make. Even if a person is not 100% vegetarian, just eating a few meatless meals a week or just reducing the amount of meat on your plate is enough to reap some benefits. In any case, here are some tips on how to go vegetarian in a safe and nutritious way.
Some Possible Health Benefits of Being a Vegetarian
Plant-based diets, with lots of vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers, notably colorectal cancer. Whether this is due to a vegetarian diet – or from statistical adjustments caused by the excessive eating abuse some non-vegetarians participate in – is open to debate.
Vegetarians do tend to weigh less and have lower cholesterol levels and fewer digestive problems, such as constipation. This is, in part, because vegetarian diets are high in fiber, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. All of which may contribute to the health benefits. Vegetarians also probably benefit from a general tendency to lead healthier lifestyles than others.
Is it Hard to Get Enough Protein on a Vegetarian Diet?
No. Vegetarians typically consume less protein than meat eaters but can still easily meet their needs. Legumes are top sources of protein, but grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables all provide some. Meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and soy crumbles, provide about as much protein, ounce for ounce, as meat (though more cautions are coming out about soy dangers for humans). If you choose a variety of foods – especially if you eat some dairy and eggs – you should get all the protein you need. (Dairy and egg intake makes a BIG difference – if it can fit into the philosophical framework! It is helpful to many if they can find sources where the animals are treated well.)
Do You Have to Combine Certain Foods at Every Meal to Get a “Complete” Protein?
No. Animal sourced foods provide all nine “essential” amino acids needed to make a “complete protein”. Plant foods, with a few exceptions (notably soy and quinoa), are incomplete, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. However, “complementary” protein sources, such as beans and tortillas, or peanut butter and bread, can provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids.
It used to be thought that you had to eat complementary proteins at the same time. However, research has shown that you only need to consume all the essential amino acids over the course of a day, which can be done if you eat a correct variety of plant foods.
Are All Vegetarian Diets Healthy?
Not necessarily. It’s easy, in fact, to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet. Lots of junk foods-chips, cookies, candy, and soda-are vegetarian. A vegetarian who eats mostly refined grains, fried foods, and sweets, for example, will have a less healthy diet than someone who eats lean meat and dairy in moderation and consumes lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Many Ways to be a Vegetarian
There are different disciplines a person can have to be a vegetarian.
- Strict vegetarians, or vegans, avoid all animal products, including meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs, as well as anything derived from animals (such as gelatin, which comes from pigs or other animals) and often honey.
- Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs along with plant foods.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy foods.
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy.
- Pesco-vegetarians eat fish.
- Polio-vegetarians eat poultry.
- Semi-vegetarians or flexitarians rely mainly on plant foods but eat meat on occasion.
Are Vegetarians at Risk for Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Vegan vegetarians are at greatest risk. Animal products are the only reliable sources of vitamin B12, which is very important for the nervous system and to prevent anemia. If you eat no animal foods, look for B12 fortified products such as some soy milks and breakfast cereals, and/or take a B12supplement. Some brewer’s and nutritional yeasts are fortified with B12, but not all are, so check the labels.
What About Other Vitamins and Minerals?
Some vegetarians may also fall short in zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and iron, depending on their diets. They should consider taking a daily multivitamin/mineral pill, as well as calcium and vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D2, as opposed to D3, always comes from non-animal sources. (However, it is vitamin D3 that provides the major D benefits you hear about.)
Zinc is found in legumes, grains, wheat germ, soy, and nuts, though it’s not as well absorbed as the zinc in meat and milk. Some leafy greens (such as broccoli, collards, and kale), tofu (processed with a calcium salt), dried figs, tahini, and almonds provide calcium. If you don’t consume dairy products, look for calcium-fortified beverages, such as soy milk, and other calcium-fortified foods.
Because the iron in plant foods (non-heme) is not as well absorbed as the iron in meat (heme iron), vegetarians may need to consume more iron. Vitamin C and other substances in fruits and vegetables enhance the absorption of non-heme iron, so it’s a good idea to include fruits or vegetables that are rich in vitamin C with every meatless meal (eat beans with a tomato salad or glass of orange juice, for instance).
Obviously, if you are not a strict Vegan, we’d recommend our Ultimate Foundation multi-vitamin, mineral and nutrient blend to make sure you are getting what you need (including the omega-3’s below).
Still, vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of anemia or lower iron stores than non-vegetarians. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about whether you need any supplements.
I Don’t Eat Fish – Should I Take an Omega-3 Supplement?
Maybe, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Vegetarian diets supply a plant form of omega-3 fats, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This is found in flax and hempseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and soy, as well as in some green leafy vegetables and vegetable oils. But plant sources lack eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) , the omega-3s found predominantly in fish.
These are needed for brain development and are also good for your heart. The body converts only very small amounts of ALA to EPA and DHA. ALA may have its own health benefits, but it can’t substitute for EPA and DHA. Vegan omega-3 supplements supply EPAlDHA from marine algae as opposed to fish oil. You don’t need supplemental ALA, as from flaxseed capsules.
Are Vegetarians At Higher Risk For Bone Loss And Osteoporosis?
The evidence is inconsistent. Bone density and fracture risk are affected by many dietary, lifestyle, environmental, hormonal, and genetic factors. Some studies suggest that vegans, who consume less calcium, are at higher risk of fractures. But others suggest that some things about vegetarian diets – such as phyto-
estrogens from soy foods, vitamin K from fruits and vegetables, and the lower levels of acid-forming compounds in the diets – are beneficial for bones.
A 2009 analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians, especially vegans, have lower bone density – but the effect is so modest that it’s unlikely to increase the risk of fracture. To best protect your bones, consume adequate calcium, vitamin D, and protein; do regular weight-bearing exercise; keep alcohol moderate and don’t smoke (same as for nonvegetarians).
Producing meat, of course, requires more energy, resources and environmental concerns than plant foods. Beef, in particular, is the biggest culprit. Unfortunately, reducing meat consumption is not an answer if human population doesn’t come under control (The Earth only has so many resources). However, even switching to other forms of meat will help.