Going vegetarian can be a very healthful decision, as evidence suggests that vegetarians may have longer, healthier lives with less heart disease, type II diabetes and obesity. But it can also be hazardous to your health if you aren’t aware of the nutrients that you might be missing out on. Going veggie does require meal planning (and it can be a little tricky!), so make sure you are doing it right!
The Iron Challenge: Dietary iron exists in two forms – heme and non-heme. Vegetables contain heme iron and meat contains non-heme iron, which is more easily absorbed in the body. Even though vegetarians often have more iron in their diets, they absorb less than meat eaters. Vitamin C really enhances the absorption of iron and coffee and tea reduce iron absorption. Therefore it's best to eat iron-rich foods in combination with foods high in vitamin C, and to wait an hour or so to eat iron-rich foods after drinking coffee or tea. Now let’s get to the good vegetarian sources of iron. Here are some foods that naturally contain it: ½ cup of chick peas or cooked soybeans (25% of recommended daily amount or RDA), ½ cup of lentils or 1 tbsp. of blackstrap molasses (20% of RDA), ½ cup of kidney beans (18% of RDA), ½ cup of dried figs or dried apricots (10% of RDA) and spinach (5% of RDA). Although getting nutrients through fortified routes is not as good as getting them naturally, it is certainly better than not getting them at all! A good way to get fortified iron is in cereals, with shredded wheat cereals taking the prize at 90 percent of your RDA of iron (I recommend Mom’s Naturals Shredded Wheat). Newman’s Own cereals are also high in iron, providing 50% of the RDA. Other good fortified sources besides cereals are Wildwood tofu burgers (60% of RDA), VitaMuffins (50% of RDA) and Gardein veggie beef (45% of RDA).
Calcium for Vegans: Calcium is an easy one for vegetarians, but not so easy for vegans. Vegetarians can get plenty from dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, etc., but vegans do not eat dairy. If you are vegan, good natural sources of calcium include spinach (30% of RDA), collard greens (20% of RDA), bok choy (15% of RDA) and almonds (8% of RDA). Fortified sources include hemp milk (40% of RDA), Luna bars (35% of RDA) and almond, rice or soy milks (30% of RDA). Nasoya now has a fortified tofu called Tofu Plus that contains 20 percent of your daily allowance of calcium.
Getting Enough B12: Although dairy products contain vitamin B12, it is not in sufficient quantities to meet daily requirements. This means vegetarians need to make an effort to get enough. Also, as we age, we absorb less vitamin B12, making it even more important for older vegetarians to be sure to consume even more. Nutritional yeast is the only known natural vegetarian source of vitamin B12 (133% of RDA). Going the fortified route, some good sources are: soy milks like Silk or Wildwood (50% of RDA), almond milks like Almond Dream (50% of RDA) and tofu like Nasoya’s Tofu Plus (20% of RDA).
Protein vs. Complete Protein: I’ve noticed that although many vegetarians and vegans are making sure they get enough protein for the day, they are not aware of the need to get complete proteins. Complete proteins are those that have all of the amino acids required in our diets. Meat eaters get them easily because proteins from animals are complete proteins. Vegetarians can get complete proteins from milk, cheese or egg whites. For vegans, quinoa, soy, nutritional yeast and hemp seeds contain complete proteins (Eden organic makes a fantastic organic quinoa that I highly recommend). If you eat incomplete proteins, you need to pair them with complementary foods in order to get all of the essential amino acids for the day. Although scientists used to think that complete proteins had to be consumed in one meal, they have now learned it is just as effective to eat them separately during the day. Complementary pairing would be eating legumes (lentils, peas and beans) + nuts, legumes + seeds and legumes + grains (wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye).
Remember that going vegetarian does NOT mean replacing meat-based meals with pasta, cheese and fries. Going vegetarian means actually eating vegetables (along with fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy), so be sure to do that…and do it right!
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Image Credit: comprock on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
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