Q: A lot of my friends are becoming vegetarians because they object to animal cruelty, have concerns about the negative effects of livestock on the environment, or for the health benefits. What are the health risks and benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet?
A: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, balanced, nutritious vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain cancers. If you have a history of high blood sugar or insulin resistance, high cholesterol or lipids, hypertension or obesity, it may be worthwhile to try a plant-based diet. Most people reduce their weight, and their carbon footprint on the environment!
The risks of a vegetarian diet are mostly about nutrient deficiencies from not balancing your diet with sufficient quantities of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. This can be avoided by becoming informed about plant-based nutrition and eating a variety of foods (preferably not too many processed vegetarian foods).
There is a range of diets to choose from that are considered vegetarian. Many people ease into a vegetarian diet while learning more about proper nutrition. Choose a vegetarian diet that is nutritious, balanced, and enjoyable. You may find that learning to prepare nutritious new recipes and using a variety of new foods is challenging and fun.
Start by eating more fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains while cutting back on animal products.
Another option to start with is a semi-vegetarian diet, eating mostly vegetarian meals with only occasional consumption of animal proteins.
Or try being a pescatarian, eating only plants and fish, but eliminating all other animal proteins (including dairy and eggs).
Some people embrace the Lacto-vegetarian diets which include dairy products. Ovo-vegetarian diets include plants and eggs, but no other animal products. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plants, dairy and eggs.
Many vegetarians eventually adopt the vegan lifestyle.
Vegan diets are strictly plant-based and require the most mindfulness to nutrient balance. Vegans do not eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, or animal byproducts.
They get all their protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals from whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and healthy plant-based fats.
There are multiple types of vegan diets including the stricter versions like the raw food diet (only eating raw plant-based foods and never heating food above 118 degrees). The “raw-til-4” diet combines the raw food diet (until 4 p.m.) with a cooked vegetarian meal after 4 p.m. Fortification or supplementation of Vitamin 12, Vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids is often necessary for vegans (plus iron, only if anemia develops). Do not use excessive supplementation. Talk to your doctor or a dietician if you aren’t sure.
Some examples of planted-based complete proteins (that contain all the essential amino acids needed by the body) include soy, tofu, tempeh (fermented, contains probiotics) and edamame (Vit K, folate, calcium and iron); quinoa (has magnesium, manganese, iron, and fiber).
Other complete proteins are chia seeds (Omega-3 fatty acids, fiber) and hemp (fiber); the meat substitute seitan (some selenium, iron, calcium, phosphorus); and sea plants like spirulina and chlorella (with iodine, potassium, antioxidants, iron, manganese, B vitamins excluding Vitamin B12).
Some plants high in protein may not contain all of the essential amino acids, but a combination of these foods can provide all the necessary amino acids.
High protein plants include beans, legumes, and peas (Vitamins A, C, K, thiamine, manganese, folate, and some iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper); garbanzos, and lentils (also has folate, manganese, fiber, iron, phosphorus, fiber and potassium). Nuts and nut butters have protein and healthy fats (plus Vitamin E, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and fiber). Flaxseeds (protein and Omega-3 fatty acids).
Adding nutritional yeast to food adds protein, flavor, and can be fortified with Vitamin B-12. Whole grains like spelt, teff, faro, barley, amaranth, and oats contain protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, some B vitamins and minerals. Sprouting of grains, beans and legumes increases nutrients and improves absorption.
Wild rice is a better protein source than brown rice.
Vegetables such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, kale, spinach, potatoes and sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts and mushrooms also contain proteins (and vitamins) as well as carbohydrates.
Eat a balance of vegetables including dark green, leafy, red, orange, and starchy, plus a minimum of two cups of fruit per day.