Helen was a 40 year old with multiple health issues at a relatively young age. Her problems mostly stemmed from her obesity and sedentary life style. When we began discussing her eating habits, she disclosed to me that she is a vegetarian. Most of us identify vegetarianism with a healthier lifestyle, but here was Helen, a vegetarian with the typical health issues one sees in the standard western diet. Let’s take a look at vegetarianism in its various forms and let’s see if indeed this is a healthy and viable way of eating.
A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, poultry, and fish. Vegetarians eat mainly fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Many vegetarians eat eggs and/or dairy products but avoid hidden animal products such as beef and chicken stocks and gelatin. There are three catagories of vegetarians:
- Vegans or total vegetarians exclude all animal products (e.g. meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products). Many vegans also do not eat honey.
- Lacto vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but include dairy products.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, and fish but include dairy products and eggs. Most vegetarians in the US are lacto-ovo vegetarians.
According to Brown University’s department of health, people choose to become vegetarians for many reasons, including concern for personal health and the environment, economic concerns, compassion for animals, belief in nonviolence, food preferences, or spiritual reasons. People may become vegetarians for one reason, and then later on adopt some of the other reasons as well.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association) says that research shows that being a vegetarian can lower the risk of getting Heart disease, colorectal, ovarian and other cancers, diabetes, and Hypertension (high blood pressure). This is due to the fact that most vegetarians are eating foods lower in fat, high in fiber and usually, they are eating an abundance of vegetables and fruits, both of which have numerous health benefits.
But when a person becomes a vegetarian of any sort, there are potential health problems that have to be addressed that may not manifest themselves in a more balanced diet. All of these concerns stem from possible nutritional deficiencies.
The key to any healthy diet is to choose a wide variety of foods, and to consume enough calories to meet your energy needs. Brown University points out the following categories of food and nutrition that vegetarians need to pay close attention to.
Protein is found in both plant foods and animal foods. Vegetarians should be aware that while there are plenty of plant-based protein options, these options contain less protein per serving compared to animal foods. Combining one or more protein sources at a meal is helpful. Good
sources of protein include lentils, beans, tofu, soybeans (edamame), soy products (like veggie burgers, but with as little processing as possible), low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, tempeh, and eggs.
The AND recommends that adults 19 to 50-years-old consume at least 1000mg of calcium per day — the equivalent of 3 cups of milk or yogurt. Vegetarians can meet their calcium needs if they consume adequate amounts of low-fat and fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium is also found in many plant foods including dark, leafy greens (spinach, kale, turnip greens, and bok choy), broccoli, beans, dried figs, and sunflower seeds, as well as in calcium-fortified cereals, cereal bars and some fortified juices.
Vegans (people who don’t eat any animal products) must strive to meet their daily calcium requirements by regularly including these plant sources of calcium in their diets.
Many soy milk products are fortified with calcium, but be sure to check the label for this. Although almond milk may also be calcium-fortified, it is lower in protein. Soy milk may be a better alternative to dairy.
Calcium is best absorbed from food, so it’s best to include calcium-rich foods in your diet on a regular basis. If these foods are not part of your typical diet, then you may consider a calcium supplement. It’s important to take this supplement with a meal, rather than on an empty stomach.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium. There are few foods that are naturally high in vitamin D, though. Therefore, dairy products in the US are fortified with vitamin D. Many soy milk products are also fortified with vitamin D. Your body can make its own vitamin D, but only when the skin is exposed to adequate sunlight (but that can have its own risks). A person only needs about 20 minutes of sunlight exposure for an adequate dose of vitamin D 4 days a week. People who do not consume dairy products and who do not receive direct exposure to sunlight regularly should consider taking supplemental vitamin D. Speak to a qualified dietician about how much you should be supplementing. Much is dependent on age.
Iron-fortified breads and cereals, dark green vegetables (e.g. spinach and broccoli), dried fruits, prune juice, blackstrap molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and soybean nuts are good plant sources of iron. Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or juices, tomatoes, and green peppers helps your body absorb iron from these plant sources.
Vitamin B-12 is produced in animals and by bacteria in the soil. Vegetarians who consume dairy products and/or eggs usually get enough B-12 since it is found in these foods. Vegans, however, should add vitamin B-12 fortified soy milk to their diets. Regularly taking a broad-spectrum multivitamin and mineral supplement will also supply the necessary amount of B-12.
So here we have Helen who is a vegetarian, but obese, with all of the common adult diseases manifesting themselves in one way or another. But with a look in Helen’s shopping cart at the supermarket, it’s obvious that her choices of foods to eat were not the right ones. Ice Cream, cookies, highly processed soya products for the toaster oven and frozen pizzas just aren’t the way to go. In addition, there was no portion control in her food intake. Perhaps the distorted thought of “since I am eating vegetarian, I can eat whatever I want” had crept into her thinking. Within her vegetarianism, our staff of dietician balanced her diet, cut her portions and we put in a daily walk also just to get started with some exercise. After 3 months, there was normal weight loss for 12 weeks and her blood tests showed improvements in all areas including her vitamin and mineral levels.
Vegetarianism is not a magic fix and it is very possible to be unhealthy as a vegetarian. On the other hand, if you do it correctly, there can be many health benefits that you can reap. There are many ways to eat that enhance your health. Being a vegetarian and doing it correctly along some exercise will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”