B E C O M I N G V E G E T A R I A N:
Why You Should Do This
and How to Make the Transition
Choose a diet with plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits
Whole grain products, vegetables, and fruits are key parts of a varied diet. They are emphasized in this guideline because they provide vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates (starch and dietary fiber), and other substances that are important for good health. They are also generally low in fat, depending on how they are prepared and what is added to them at the table. Most Americans of all ages eat fewer than the recommended number of servings of grain products, vegetables, and fruits, even though consumption of these foods is associated with a substantially lower risk for many chronic diseases, including certain types of cancer.
Meeting your nutritional needs
During the first half of the twentieth century, our government and many doctors were unduly concerned about diseases of nutritional deficiency. Getting enough iron and protein, for example, was believed to be challenging on any diet. Today, we know that we really should be more concerned about diseases of excess than diseases of deficiency. Our high consumption of animal protein, animal fat and animal cholesterol has led to a number of diseases, as we just mentioned. Now let’s examine how you can fulfill your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet.
The most common question you will get from concerned loved ones (and sometimes even doctors!) who know you are reducing your meat consumption will be: "But where will you get your protein?" This is an area where our knowledge has indeed come a long way. Protein deficiency, unless caused by an extreme restriction in calories (as in starvation or eating disorders) or a particularly poor diet devoid of variety, is rare.
Consider these facts:
- Most people in developed countries eat too much protein (often double the RDA, which already has a safety margin built into it).
- High protein intake increases excretion of calcium in the urine, which can contribute to a negative calcium balance and bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis.
- Excess animal protein, which is often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, raises blood cholesterol levels, and can contribute to heart disease, kidney disease and osteoporosis.
- Nuts and legumes are excellent sources of protein and have many other benefits as well.
- It is not at all necessary to “combine” plant proteins at the same time or even at the same meal in order to get adequate protein.
- Since many plant foods contain protein, eating enough calories and a variety of foods will ensure adequate protein intake.
- Legumes are an excellent source of lysine, which is the most common amino acid lacking in people who consume very little protein.
Americans who eat a meat-centered diet get most of their iron from meat. But iron is widely available in plant foods, too. The absorption of iron is greatly increased by ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which is found in many fruits and vegetables. Good plant sources of iron include dried beans, tofu, whole grains, dark green vegetables such as spinach and other greens, dried fruits, prune juice, blackstrap molasses and fortified breads and cereals. Including foods that are high in vitamin C, such as fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes, green or red peppers etc., along with iron-containing foods, helps your body absorb the iron. Dairy foods, on the other hand, are low in iron and tend to inhibit its absorption. Thus, it is not uncommon for people who replace meat with dairy products to become iron deficient. It is important to replace iron-rich animal foods with iron-rich plant foods to reduce risk of iron deficiency.
The high amount of iron consumed in meat-based diets can actually be a problem for many people. While iron deficiency is a big nutritional problem worldwide, hereditary iron overload (hemochromatosis) in men is much more common than iron-deficiency anemia. Even people without this faulty iron-storage gene typically build up iron in their bodies as they age. And too much iron can contribute to heart disease by acting as a pro-oxidant (the opposite of the protective anti-oxidant).
While we are all very much aware of the high calcium content in dairy products, they are not our only source of calcium, nor are they our healthiest source. Many plant foods offer abundant, available calcium, and now many non-dairy beverages, such as orange juice and soy milk are fortified with calcium to the same level as cow’s milk. Good calcium sources include dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, mustard greens, bok choy, and broccoli. (Note that not all dark green vegetables—especially spinach and collard greens—are good sources of calcium because their availability for absorption is poor.) Tofu prepared with calcium, some beans, and some nuts (such as almonds) and seeds (such as sesame seeds) are also good sources.
The reason that dairy isn’t our healthiest source of calcium is that it comes with a lot of “baggage”: saturated fat, cholesterol, genetically-engineered growth hormones and antibiotics, and actually too much protein. The high amounts of animal protein can actually leach calcium from the bones. When you trade a glass of milk for a cup of steamed broccoli, not only do you avoid all that baggage, but you get all of the benefits of that plant: vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals and anti-oxidants. GOT MILK or NOT MILK?
Saturated fats have been shown to be a big dietary contributor to high blood cholesterol levels. The main sources of saturated fat include animal fat, dairy fat, tropical oils, and cocoa butter.
Margarine, shortening and many processed foods contain hydrogenated oil. The process of hydrogenating oil creates these trans fats, or “funny fats.” Because trans fats increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol), decrease HDL (“good”cholesterol) and raise triglycerides, they are the worst kind of fat to consume. Trans fats appear to be 2-4 times worse for the risk of coronary artery disease than even saturated fats. (16) Look closely at the labels of peanut butter, burritos and processed foods such as chips and cookies, and try to avoid “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” ingredients.
These “good” fats are found in high percentages in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, olives, and nuts. Research has shown that replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats can be effective in lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. These fats are also believed to be the best fats to consume to reduce your risk of certain types of cancers.
These fats have received both praise and criticism for their effects on health and disease. The essential fatty acids—needed in order to maintain good health—include two poly-unsaturated fatty acids: linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).
It is important to consume both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. The typical American dietary pattern provides excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in relation to omega-3 fatty acids. Current research suggests that essential fatty acid levels and balance may play a critical role not only in growth and development, but also in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, type-II diabetes, arthritis, other immune/ inflammatory disorders, cancer, and psychological disorders such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and ADHD.
Plant sources of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats include corn oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts and hempseed oil. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids aid in preventing thrombosis and coronary artery disease, and may be helpful in reducing inflammation in arthritis. For this reason, it is important to insure adequate essential fatty acid intake and balance by:
- reducing intake of saturated fat (found mostly in animal foods) and trans fats (found in processed foods and margarine);
- avoiding omega-6-rich oils (corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil);
- if using oils, select those rich in monounsaturated fats (extra virgin olive oil);
- including a daily source of omega-3s (walnuts, flaxseeds, greens);
- making whole foods (nuts, seeds, avocados) your primary source of fat, instead of oils.
In most climates and for most people, 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to the sun alone is ample to meet needs for vitamin D. If supplementation is desired or needed (for those who are housebound, who have dark skin, or who live in northern climates in the winter months), vitamin D-fortified milk alternatives are good sources of this vitamin, or one can take a vitamin D supplement.
Vitamin B-12 is produced by microorganisms, bacteria, fungi and algae. Neither plants nor animals make this vitamin. Animal foods are sources because animals consume the B-12 in their food and/or absorb it from B-12-producing bacteria in their intestines. Some plants, such as alfalfa, contain some B-12, but the best known sources of B-12 for vegetarians are the sea vegetables spirulina and chlorella. Spirulina is actually the highest source of B-12, essential for healthy nerves and tissue, especially for vegetarians. Spirulina can be found in your local health food store or on the internet. For some it may be advisable in a diet devoid of all animal foods either to take a vitamin B-12 supplement of approximately 50 mcg once a week, or to eat foods fortified with the vitamin. Many non-dairy beverages and some breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B-12. There is no doubt that the B-12 supplements are of animal source, usually from discarded (often diseased) beef livers.
An excellent source of Vitamin B-12 from both Spirulina and Chlorella is LIFEFORCE, an energy and immune support supplement by DayStar Botanicals.
Meeting recommended intakes of zinc appears to be a challenge for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Whole grains, nuts, dried beans and tofu are good plant-based sources of zinc. Although these same foods contain phytates that may reduce availability of zinc, the zinc and trace mineral status of most adult vegetarians appears to be adequate. Again, eating a variety of foods is the key.
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