So you want to be a vegetarian? Congrats! Studies show that vegetarian diets are linked to lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk for heart disease and a longer life span. The USDA even reports “on average, vegetarians consume a lower proportion of calories from fat (particularly saturated fatty acids); fewer overall calories; and more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C than do non-vegetarians.”
However, deciding to become vegetarian doesn’t automatically equal healthy eating. As a 15-year vegetarian veteran, I can assure you that if you don’t do the Veg Life the right way, you will suffer the health consequences.
Here’s what you need to know:
Sources: Soy foods, Soymilk, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy products, quinoa
As a vegetarian, you have to make a conscious effort to get enough quality protein in your diet. What makes a good protein? Two things. The first is the digestibility of the protein: Can your body break it down and absorb it well. And the second is the Amino Acid composition (does the protein contain all the right Amino Acids and are they in the right proportions?). The Protein Digestibility Corrected Score (PDCAAS) measures proteins from 1 to 100, 100 being the highest quality protein. Guess which protein tops the list? (Drum roll, please.) Eggs. They contain the ideal mix of Amino Acids that your body needs for growth, giving them a PDCAAS score of 100. In second place are animal meats, like fish, beef and chicken; their numbers are in 90s. Soy protein is in the same bracket. (Thank god!) Next come legumes, which score in the 50s and 60s, followed by grains, which only get 25-40.
If you are not giving your body the right Amino Acid ratio, it will end up using the random Amino Acids as calories (read: energy) instead of for muscle, growth, hair, skin, nails, immune function, etc. For non-meat eaters who want more options than tofu every night (it’s good and all, but variety is king) there is light at the end of the tunnel. Proteins are like clothes; you can mix and match to get the job done. For example, when you eat legumes you get two Amino Acids and when you eat grains you get their complementary pairs. Beans and rice don’t just taste good together, they work well in your body as well. Multi Grain/ Whole Wheat crackers and peanut butter are also a good combo.
Sources: Fish/Fish oils (EPA/DHA), ground flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, soy products, nuts/seeds, avocado
There are good fats, bad fats and horrible fats. Good fats (unsaturated) are found in plants, bad fats (saturated) come from animals and horrible fats (trans) are manmade. The American Dietetic Association recommends that our fat intake should be between 20 to 35 percent of our total calories each day. Fats are important because they aid with growth and development, provide energy, help with absorbing certain vitamins, provide cushioning for our organs and help maintain cell membranes. Vegetarians and meat eaters alike should aim to consume mostly unsaturated fats because they have additional health benefits (such as lowering cholesterol).
Sources: Almond butter, Tahini, figs, textured soy protein, soy nuts, kale, broccoli, collards, mustard greens, corn tortillas (processed with lime), vegetarian baked beans, black beans, fortified soy milk, fortified rice milk, dairy products
Vegans who don’t eat calcium-fortified foods probably aren’t meeting the daily requirement for this mineral. This is dangerous because calcium is necessary for muscle contraction. Plus, if we don’t consume enough calcium early in life (before 30), we are at risk for developing osteoporosis at a later age.
One thing to keep in mind is that calcium in plant foods is not absorbed as well as it is in animal products (dairy). Specifically, calcium is poorly absorbed from some beans and high-oxalate veggies like spinach and beet greens. However, calcium is well absorbed from soy products, kale, collards, mustard greens and broccoli. So make sure to get plenty of those foods in your diet!
Sources: Fortified soymilk, fortified cow’s milk, fortified breakfast cereals
Recent studies link vitamin D to lower risks of diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, memory loss and several types of cancer. The problem is, most of American’s don’t get enough vitamin D. To make matters worse, vitamin D deficiency has been called a “hidden epidemic” amongst African Americans. Vitamin D is synthesized via sun exposure, so the darker your skin is, the greater chance you have of melanin interfering with synthesis. Since fish and egg yolks are among the only sources of vitamin D in foods, we must make sure to consume foods fortified with Vitamin D, like fortified breakfast cereals. If not, supplementation is a must.
Sources: Fortified meat analogues, fortified breakfast cereals, dairy, fortified soymilk, nutritional yeast
Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that occurs naturally only in animal foods. Sea veggies and cultured soy products (miso and tempeh) were once thought to be good sources of B12 but have now been shown to be less ideal sources of the important vitamin. The main goal for vegetarians is to consume products that have been fortified with B12 like breakfast cereals or soymilk.
Bran Flakes, instant oatmeal, whole wheat bread, nuts, nut butters, potato with skin, dried fruits, legumes, fortified cereals, whole grain cereals
There are two types or iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron, found in animal products, is better absorbed by our bodies than nonheme iron, which is found in plants. Additionally, vegetarians are more likely to consume whole grains and legumes, which contain phytate, a property in some plant-based foods that inhibits the absorption of iron. The solution: try eating iron rich meals with vitamin C, which enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
Whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified breakfast cereals, dairy
Vegetarians can require up to 50% more zinc than meat eaters. Similar to iron, the phytate in vegetarian diets interferes with the absorption of zinc. Try combining foods rich in zinc with protein, as protein enhances zinc absorption. Also, soaking dried beans and tossing out the water before cooking can lower phytate content.
Jessica Jones is a New York City based Nutrition Consultant and the co-host of Food Heaven Made Easy with Wendy & Jess, a monthly cooking/nutrition series on Brooklyn Community Access Television (BCAT). Jones is finishing up her Master’s of Science in Nutrition from Brooklyn College. For more, visit www.foodheavenmadeeasy.com