Interested in becoming vegetarian? You may have a lot to learn! Here’s your primer on all the benefits that come with vegetarian diets, as well as some nutrients to be aware of and how to get started.
In research, individuals following a plant-based diet appear to be at a significantly lower risk for a number of chronic health conditions: heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, some cancers, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
This is because plant-based diets are naturally low in saturated fats, which typically come from animal based products like meat and dairy (milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, etc.) Plant-based diets are also higher in unsaturated fats, which typically come from plant sources (nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and plant/vegetable oils like olive oil and canola). Plants are also our only source of dietary fiber, which has also been linked to better health outcomes. Lastly, most plant-based foods are moderate or high in potassium, which in addition to reducing dietary sodium can be protective for the heart in cardiac conditions.
Can we decrease saturated fats, increase unsaturated fats, and increase fiber in our diets without going vegetarian? Absolutely! By reducing the amount of animal and dairy products we consume in a day. But if you’re looking to go fully plant-based for ethical or political reasons, let’s cover the rest of what you need to know.
Types of vegetarian
Based on personal food preferences, there are a few different classes of vegetarian and all of them will be effective in achieving the above health benefits. Read through the options to decide what will be the most practical, sustainable, and enjoyable to you!
Flexitarian: Eat predominantly vegetarian but may include some meals during the week that contain meat or animal products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Includes milk, dairy, and eggs.
Lacto-vegetarian: Includes milk and dairy but no eggs.
Pescatarian: Includes fish and/or shellfish, and may or may not include milk, dairy, and/or eggs depending on preference.
Vegan: Avoid any products that are animal based or otherwise made or harvested by animals, including meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, milk, dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, etc.
Nutrition concerns for vegetarians
There is some nutrition education required for individuals looking to transition into a vegetarian diet. In particular, we’ll cover protein concerns for most vegetarians and vegans, as well as some nutrient concerns for vegans.
Recommended daily protein intake for most adults maintaining a sedentary lifestyle or average 3-5x/wk workout routine is 0.8 - 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (get your kilos by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2). For higher levels of athletic training and lifting, 1.2 - 2.0 grams per kg of body weight may be more beneficial for muscle growth and recovery.
Proteins are important for muscle synthesis but they are also the foundation of many cell and tissue structures, enzymes, hormones, and immune system components. To make sure you’re getting enough, learn your protein sources:
Animals: Beef, pork, poultry, game, fish, shellfish,
Animal-based products: Eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese
Some plants: Nuts, nut butters, any bean variety, lentils, other legumes, peas, edamame
Some whole grains: Quinoa, wild rice, barley, farro, sorghum, 100% whole wheat bread or pasta products
Vegetarian protein substitutes: veggie burgers, veggie dogs, Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger, tofu, tempeh, seitan, protein powders
Foods that typically do not contain significant amounts of protein due to content include fruits, most vegetables, avocado, coconut, and refined grain products. Other products that may contain protein but we typically eat them in small amounts include grated cheese, salad dressings, dairy creamers, cream cheese, sour cream, hummus, and seeds (chia, hemp, flax). As a result, these are also not significant sources of protein.
Iron is plentiful and readily absorbable from animal-based protein sources in a typical diet. It’s primary role in the body is oxygen transport via the red blood cells, and without adequate iron we may be less efficient with oxygen delivery to muscle, organs, and tissues. This can make us feel run down and tired.
Our digestive system has a more difficult time absorbing plant-based sources of iron (such as from dark leafy greens, beans) and as a result, vegetarians and vegans are recommended to consume almost twice as much as their recommended daily allowance (8g/d for men and 18mg/d for most adult women).
Adding citrus to plant-based iron sources (such as lemon, lime, tomato, and orange) may increase iron absorption. Other ways to get more iron from plant-based foods, particularly beans, is to soak them overnight or explore techniques for sprouting or fermenting them. This breaks the bean down and makes the iron more readily absorbable.
Calcium (predominantly a concern for vegans)
Calcium is a mineral that is also considered an “electrolyte:” it helps our body maintain appropriate heart function, muscle contraction, and also bone density. Calcium is most abundant in dairy products such as milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese. While vegetarians who prioritize 3-4 servings of dairy per day will meet their needs, vegans who eliminate dairy products will have to take additional precautions to meet their calcium needs.
Other options for calcium intake can be located by looking at ingredient labels for at least 25% daily value of calcium. Many milk/yogurt substitutes will fortify their products with calcium. Some grains and cereals, protein powders, tofu, and electrolyte drinks may also be fortified with calcium.
Plant-based whole food sources of calcium include sardines, salmon, beans, lentils, kale, and collard greens. Spinach is high in calcium but it is not readily absorbable by our body, so we likely will not meet calcium needs by increasing spinach intake.
B12 (predominantly a concern for vegans)
B12 is a vitamin only found in animal products, and is crucial to healthy metabolism, nervous system function, and brain function. Side effects of B12 deficiency include a unique form of anemia, memory loss and difficulty with walking and disorientation.
Vegetarians can meet their B12 needs by consuming 3-4 servings of egg and dairy daily. For vegans, there are very few food sources that contain B12 and likely not in substantial amounts to adequately supply the body what it needs. In one study, 52% of vegans tested presented with B12 deficiency.
Vegans may look for products that fortify with B12, such as nutritional yeast, milk/yogurt substitutes, cereals, and alternative meat products. Keep in mind that intake from these foods must consistently equal 100% of daily value for B12; having one 8-ounce serving per day of a milk containing 50% DV of B12 will be inadequate and result in deficiency.
The easiest B12 option for vegans is likely a supplement, and this is best done with a health professional who can test levels regularly.
Myth of the complete protein
The last piece of nutrition education for vegetarians has to do with the idea of a “complete protein.”
After eating, protein digests down into its basic components: amino acids. For optimal function, the human body requires 20 amino acids. Nine of these are “essential,” meaning that the body can’t create them on its own and we need to get them in our food choices.
Any animal-based product is going to contain all 20 amino acids; we refer to these protein sources as complete proteins. Many plant-based sources of protein, however - such as legumes, grains, and nuts - do not contain all 20 amino acids, referred to as “incomplete.”
For decades, vegans and vegetarians were encouraged to pair certain foods together – typically a grain and a bean, legume, or nut - to make sure they achieved a complete protein (all 20 amino acids) at each meal.
What we have learned through more recent research is that a varied, plant-based diet that meets an individual’s calorie requirements will include all of the amino acids essential to protein building. We do not have to eat all 20 amino acids at the same time; as long as we are getting them all at some point during the day, the body can still utilize them as it normally would if eaten together.
The key is to include 2-3 servings of protein-rich vegetables, 5-6 servings of whole grains, and at least 2-3 servings of protein-based alternatives from the lists above. Achieve this daily and protein needs will be met!
There are vegetarian diets out there to meet anyone’s means or personal preferences. With a bit of information on protein and nutrient concerns it’s easy to achieve a healthy, complete diet on any plant-based plan.
Check out the non-profit Vegetarian Resource Group (http://www.vrg.org) or talk to a registered dietitian to get more information for your veggie journey today!