A Vegetarian Lifestyle has its Advantages
But makes sure you know how to get all the nutrients you need
By Kelly Barry, R.D.
Veggies are essential, wholesome foods our bodies need, but some good common sense is required if that’s your entire diet. People choose to become vegetarian for many different reasons; ethics, animal rights, health, the environment, religion or even just because it’s trendy. A parent whose teenage son or daughter announces they are becoming a vegetarian might experience considerable anxiety about this choice and how it might impact their child’s growth and development.
Choosing a vegetarian lifestyle if done properly can not only be a very healthy choice, it can offer some health benefits as well. Opting to live without meat and other animal products and not including appropriate alternates to ensure adequate nutrition however, can cause nutrient deficiencies, such as low iron and side veggies effects like fatigue and sugar cravings. The key to being a healthy vegetarian is substituting appropriate vegetarian alternates to the animal products you have eliminated.
Types of vegetarian diets
People who choose to become vegetarian can choose to not eat any animal flesh but still consume animal products, such as milk or eggs, or can eliminate all foods derived from animals.
Vegan – eats only plant-based foods, no animal flesh, fish, seafood, or foods derived from an animal.
Lacto-vegetarian – does not eat any animal flesh, fish or seafood, but will eat milk and milk products.
Ovo-vegetarian – does not eat animal foods, fish or seafood, but will eat eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian – does not eat animal foods, fish or seafood, but will eat milk and eggs.
Key nutrients to consider when planning a vegetarian diet
Protein is an essential nutrient found inmeat, fish, milk and eggs. It is important for healthy growth, repair and maintenance of tissues in the body. Protein is also important for a healthy immune system. Vegetarian foods such
as soy and soy products, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils) as well as nuts, nut butters and seeds are good vegetarian sources for protein.
Iron and zinc
Iron and zinc are important minerals. Iron’s job is to carry oxygen in the blood to the entire body. Zinc is essential for reproduction, growth, sexual development, wound healing and a healthy immune system. Iron and zinc are found in meat, eggs, liver and dairy foods.
Vegetarian sources of iron include dried fruits, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Plant-based sources of iron are not as readily absorbed by the body as are animal-based sources. Including a source of vitamin C with plant sources of iron helps the body better absorb the iron. For example, the vitamin C found in fruit juice can help you absorb more iron from your whole grain toast. Whole grains, nuts and legumes are also good plant sources of zinc.
Calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are important to build and maintain strong, healthy bones and teeth. These nutrients are readily found in milk and milk products. A vegetarian’s best source of these nutrients is fortified soy or rice beverages. Many fruit juices are now fortified with calcium and vitamin D as well. Tofu made with calcium, hummus, legumes, broccoli, almonds, sesame seeds, molasses, and some leafy greens are other sources of calcium. Vitamin D is sometimes called the sunshine vitamin because we can make this vitamin in our skin when we are exposed to the sun’s rays. In Canada however, where we have limited exposure to sunlight from October to April and are encouraged to cover ourselves in sunscreen during the summer months, the sun is not a reliable source. This means that choosing foods that are a source of this nutrient is a more consistent way to ensure proper nutrition.
Vitamin B12 is important for the nervous system and for forming red blood cells. Milk products, eggs and fish are good sources of B12 but few plant-based foods contain significant amounts ofthis nutrient. Foods fortified with B12 or supplements are the best option for a vegan.
Fats are an important source of energy and help the brain and nervous system to develop. Any diet should provide adequate amounts of essential fats from foods like olive and canola oils, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, avocado, walnuts and other nuts and seeds. Essential fats are an important consideration for vegans in particular, as overall fat intake with this type of eating tends to be low.
How to follow a healthy vegetarian diet
Well-planned and thoughtful eating is the key to maintaining good health and optimal growth and development while following a vegetarian way of eating. Use Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. It is a tool designed for both non-vegetarians and vegetarians to help you plan a healthy diet. Download a copy at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/foodguide-aliment/index-eng.php. The food guide is a tool that can be used for anyone over the age of two years. It provides advice on the number of servings necessary from each food group for people of different ages and sexes. It includes vegetarian options such as meat alternates and milk alternates.
By consistently selecting a variety of foods from all of the food groups and choosing appropriate vegetarian alternates, you can readily maintain health on a vegetarian diet. Be sure to consider the nutrients mentioned above and include adequate sources of these nutrients on a daily basis. A proper vegetarian way of eating has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and obesity as well as certain cancers. If you or a family member decides to go vegetarian, be sure to choose wisely to get all the nutrients you need. Common mistakes people make when they go vegetarian are eliminating meat and just eating lots of fruits and vegetables or eating cheese as their sole source of protein. If you are unsure about the quality of your vegetarian diet or that of your child, seek the advice of a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians may be available as part of your OHIP covered health care services through your local hospital, family health team or community health centre. Ask your doctor for a referral or www.dietitians.ca can help you locate a registered dietitian near you.
Kelly Barry is a registered dietitian who has a passion for food and all things related. She has spent many years helping individuals and families along the road o healthier eating and understands the challenges parents face when choosing to make healthy foods a priority.