Possible nutritional shortfalls you should be aware of when making the switch
Vegetarians enjoy some impressive health advantages, including reduced risk of obesity and chronic diseases, particularly heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and greater longevity.
However, becoming vegetarian does not guarantee a healthy diet.
After all, chips and soda are generally 100 per cent vegetarian, as are many other fatty, salt and sugar-laden snack foods.
Seven stumbling blocks and how to avoid them
Switching from meat and potatoes to pasta and bagels
The most common blunder made by new vegetarians is switching from meat and potatoes to pasta and bagels. The reason so many vegetarians make this mistake is that pasta, bagels and other refined carbohydrate foods are familiar, comfort foods. These foods are nutritional wash-outs, and when they dominate the diet (as they do for many North Americans), they contribute to obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
However, people can do well on high carbohydrate diets, where the primary sources of those carbohydrates are whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. In this case, the carbohydrate comes packaged with protective compounds such as fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.
The lowest rates of chronic disease in the world are in areas with high carbohydrate intakes. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 55-75 per cent of calories come from carbohydrates for maximum disease risk reduction, and not more than 10 per cent of calories from added sugars.
Replacing meat with dairy and eggs
Often new vegetarians trade in meat, chicken and fish for dairy products and eggs. Typical entrees include pizza, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese omelets. While these foods are rich in protein, they are lacking in iron.
Iron comes in two different forms in food: heme, and non-heme. Heme iron comes from blood and is found only in meat, poultry and fish (about 40 per cent of the iron in animal flesh is heme iron). This type of iron has high bioavailability. Non-heme iron is found in meat and all other iron-containing foods. Dairy products are poor sources of iron, and they can inhibit iron absorption. The iron in eggs has poor bioavailability. Thus, vegetarians are advised to replace meat with good plant sources of iron such as legumes.
Other good iron sources include nuts and seeds (especially pine nuts and pumpkin seeds), dried fruits, blackstrap molasses, some vegetables (greens, mushrooms and peas) and grains (especially quinoa, amaranth and iron-fortified grains). Eating vitamin C-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables with iron rich foods helps to enhance iron absorption.
Eating too many fast-foods and convenience foods
If you eat vegetarian fast-foods, convenience foods and snack foods, do so in moderation. Frozen entrees, veggie meats, frozen whole grain waffles, packaged mixes, vegan cheeses and vegetarian snack foods can offer variety and enjoyment, but they should not become dietary staples.
These foods are designed to tantalize your taste buds and keep you coming back for more. This task is brilliantly accomplished with salt, sugar and fat, all of which have adverse health consequences when consumed in excess. While vegetarian versions of these types of foods are often healthier than their nonvegetarian counterparts, there is no guarantee.
Be sure to read labels. Avoid foods with trans fatty acids (if an ingredient list includes partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, the product contains trans fatty acids).
Assuming that all nutrients will be provided by nature
All nutrients are available in nature, but due to our manner of living, several nutrients have become difficult to acquire in certain situations. Vitamin B12, for example, is present in anything contaminated with B12-producing bacteria.
While animal products are reliable sources of B12, plant foods are not. Even if plants have B12 bacteria clinging to them after picking, we generally wash them away in an effort to eliminate pathogenic bacteria. Lack of vitamin B12 in the diet can cause anemia, nerve damage and cognitive impairment.
Reliable sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians include fortified foods (e.g. cereals, non-dairy beverages and veggie meats), supplements and animal products (dairy and eggs) for lacto-ovo vegetarians less than 50 years of age. Animal products are not considered a reliable source of vitamin B12 for those over 50 years of age as the ability to cleave B12 from the protein it is bound to can be significantly impaired.
To get sufficient vitamin B12 from foods or supplements, we need at least 4 mcg in fortified foods at least twice a day, 25-100 mcg of supplemental B12 daily or 1000mcg B12 twice weekly week.
Getting insufficient omega-3 fatty acids
Since vegetarians do not eat fish, total omega-3 requirements may be higher for vegetarians than for nonvegetarians. Vegetarians must convert plant omega-3 fatty acids to the more physiologically active long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, so vegetarians are well advised to include 3-5 grams per day.
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the plant kingdom include flaxseed and flaxseed oil, hempseed and hempseed oil, chia seed and chia seed oil, canola oil, walnuts and dark greens. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed provides about 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get some long-chain omega-3 fatty acids from omega-3 rich eggs, and both vegetarians and vegans can get long-chain omega-3 fatty acids from cultured microalgae (available in veggie caps).
Turning your nose up at beans, nuts and seeds
Beans, nuts and seeds are important sources of trace minerals, which are essential to optimal health. Iron, zinc and iodine are especially important, though intakes of chromium, selenium, magnesium, manganese and copper can also be lacking.
Beans, nuts and seeds can go a long way to ensuring our needs for these nutrients are met. One of the best ways to increase your use of beans is to learn from the many cultures that use them as staples – they are the masters of making legumes taste fabulous. Try making your own burritos, falafels, hummus or chili – all delicious foods that use beans as a base.
Nuts and seeds are wonderfully nourishing foods, but they are high in fat so sprinkle them on cereal or salad. An ounce or two each day is plenty. Another mineral to pay attention to is iodine, which is found primarily in iodized salt. Kelp powder is a good alternative for those wishing to limit sodium. We need only about a tenth of a teaspoon per day to provide the 150 mcg RDA.
It doesn’t matter if you are a vegan, vegetarian or meat-eater, if you eat too much and exercise too little you can become overweight or obese.
While vegans have the lowest rates of overweight and obesity of all dietary groups, they are not immune to weight gain. Being overweight increases risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and gallbladder disease. Obesity has been found to add about 20 years to a person’s age in terms of health risk.
Portion control is of the utmost importance. To avoid overeating, limit processed foods and added fats. Limit calorie-laden beverages. Focus on high fiber, whole plant foods. Be mindful of what you consume. Eat slowly, and include at least 30-60 minutes of physical activity each day.
Brenda Davis is a registered dietitian, a leader in her field and an internationally acclaimed speaker. She is the lead dietitian in a diabetes intervention research project in Majuro, Marshall Islands and co-author of seven books: Becoming Raw, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian, The Raw Food Revolution Diet, Defeating Diabetes and Dairy-free and Delicious.