There are as many reasons for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle as there are vegetarians. For some, the decision is spiritual, while others are motivated by the health benefits of a meatless diet. But being a healthy vegetarian involves much more than simply avoiding meat. In fact, when nutrients provided by meat are not replaced with plant-based alternatives, illness can quickly set in.
To build and maintain health, we all need the right ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates are available in fruits, vegetables and grains, getting enough carbs with a vegetarian diet is never a problem. Where we need guidance involves our sources of protein and healthy fats.
When it comes to protein, it’s important to remember that what we really need is the amino acids. Excellent plant sources of amino acids include hemp; beans (soy, kidney, fava, black and chick peas); lentils; tofu and tempeh; sea weed and algae like chlorella and spirulina; sprouted nuts and seeds; and grasses like wheat, barley and oat. The key to optimal health is to eat a variety of foods to ensure you are obtaining all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Another key issue for vegetarians is finding a good source of healthy omega-3 fats. Plant sources of essential fat alpha linolenic acid (ALA) include leafy greens, hemp oil and algae. ALA converts in the body to the active forms of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Unfortunately, most people, including new vegetarians, have problems making this conversion, explaining why it is recommended we consume EPA and DHA directly in fish and fish oil supplements. This creates a problem for those wanting to avoid fish. Work with an expert to create a supplement program tailored to your needs.
Focus nutrients for optimum health:
Protein Hemp; pea protein, rice protein
B12 Chlorella; seaweed; algae; nutritional yeast
Iron Pumpkin seeds (soaked); turmeric; cinnamon; tofu
Calcium Sesame seeds; spinach; collard greens; basil
Omega 3 EFAs walnuts; hemp; flax; salba
Although many vegetarians avoid dairy, vegetarian diets can provide plentiful calcium with leafy greens, nuts and seeds. In fact, diets high in foods like meat, processed foods, pop and coffee cause blood to become acidic, triggering the release of calcium from bones, and eventually leading to bone weakening.
Try not to do too much too soon. It takes time for your body to adapt to a new way of eating, and even positive change can be stressful. Start by steadily adding more vegetarian meals to your menu, incorporating a variety of possibly new-to-you foods like salba and dulse. Try sprouted grains like buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth. Sprouted grains are not only easier to digest because enzymes are activated, but sprouting sprouted grains also release nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to you. For example, sprouting produces vitamin C and increases vitamin B content, especially B2, B5, and B6. Consult with a nutrition professional as you evolve to a meatless diet, to be sure you’re getting the required nutrients every step of the way.
Vegetarians have lower body mass indices, along with lower blood cholesterol and lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians. Vegetarians are also at reduced risk of hypertension; ischemic heart disease; type 2 diabetes; and cancer. Just be sure if you are following a vegetarian diet, you’re getting all the nutrients your body requires.
By Lisa Petty
Originally published in Canadian Health & Lifestyle