Vegetarian Eating

By Lynn Roblin MSc.RD.

In recent years, the vegetarian diet has increased in popularity. And while many people are vegetarian for cultural, religious or ecological reasons, more and more people are converting to vegetarianism for health benefits. The vegetarian food-style has been called “a healthier way to eat” for many reasons.

Vegetarian diets have been credited with decreasing the incidence or severity of heart disease, hypertension, diverticular disease, cancer of the breast, colon, prostate and lung, and osteoporosis and gallstones.

The health benefits associated with vegetarianism go beyond simply having better eating habits. People who have been following a traditional vegetarian diet for many years may be healthier because they also tend to avoid or use less alcohol, caffeine and refined foods. They also tend to have other positive lifestyle habits including being more physically active, having less stressful lifestyles and being non-smokers.

Vegetarianism has been part of the lifestyle of many religious and cultural groups for centuries. But vegetarianism is a more recent phenomena in North America.

Despite the interest in vegetarianism, only about 4 percent of Canadians define themselves as vegetarians. But the desire to adopt a more vegetarian eating pattern is truly here. Thirty percent of Canadian grocery shoppers now serve meatless meals on a regular basis.

The term “vegetarian” is used quite broadly to describe individuals ranging from true or pure vegetarians, to lacto-ovo vegetarians and semi-vegetarians.

True vegetarians or vegans avoid all foods of animal origin, including eggs, dairy foods, gelatin and honey. Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid all animal products except eggs (ovo) and milk products (lacto). Most vegetarians fall into this category.

People who are moving towards a vegetarian food-style are called semi-vegetarians. These individuals are eating less animal foods but are not ready to give them up for good. Eggs, milk products and limited amounts of fish, chicken and sometimes meat are still eaten.

A vegetarian diet, based primarily on plant foods, is higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat than meals containing animal foods. When this diet includes plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables it also provides fibre, antioxidant nutrients and plant phytochemicals which play a role in chronic disease prevention.

The greatest challenge with vegetarian eating is making sure adequate amount of essential nutrients are consumed.

  • Getting enough protein is not a problem for most vegetarians. Protein needs can be satisfied by including legumes, nuts and seeds, and a variety of whole grains on a daily basis. Combining different plant foods also helps ensure protein needs get met. For example, eating grains with legumes (for example, rice and beans or pita bread with hummus) or grains with nuts (for example, rice with cashew-vegetable stir-fry). Milk products and eggs also provide protein, if they are eaten.
  • Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem among vegetarians due to inadequate intakes of absorbable iron.Female teens 14-18 years of age need 15 mg of iron per day compared to male teens who need 11 mg of iron per day. Women 19-50 need 18 mg of iron per day while men and post-menopause women only require 8 mg per day. Cooked beans and lentils, split peas, and tofu all provide iron. Other sources are iron-fortified breakfast cereals, bread, oat and wheat bran, nuts and seeds, and dried fruit. Iron absorption can be increased by having foods that contain vitamin C (fruit and vegetables) with foods that contain iron. For example, having orange juice when you eat iron-fortified cereals or bread, or adding oranges or tomatoes to spinach salad increases iron absorption. Cooking with cast iron cookware also increases iron intakes.
  • An inadequate intake of calcium is a concern for vegans who omit milk products. Teens 14-18 years of age need. 1300 mg per day, men and women 19-50 years old need 1000 mg per day and those over 50 need 1200 mg of calcium per day. Some plant-based foods like tofu, are made with calcium, but it is important to read labels to see how much it contains. Many soy beverages now contain calcium equivalent to cow’s milk but you must check the label to see if it is fortified with calcium. Some plant-based foods that provide calcium include broccoli, kale, bok choy, okra, dry hijiki seaweed, and almond butter. You’ll need to include at least 4-6 servings of calcium containing plant foods and beverages in your daily diet if you don’t consume any milk products.
  • Other nutrients of concern to vegetarians include zinc and vitamin B 12. Zinc is especially important to help infants and children grow. Foods that provide zinc, include whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, tempeh, miso, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs and dairy products. Vitamin B 12 is found only in animal products. To prevent a deficiency, vegetarians must consume vitamin B 12 fortified foods or a B 12 supplement.

Careful planning of vegetarian meals is important to prevent nutrient deficiencies in children, adults and pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Good resources to check out include Becoming Vegetarian – The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Vegetarian Diet by Vesanto Melina, Brenda Davis and Victoria Harrison;

Cooking Vegetarian by Vesanto Melina and Joseph Forest (both published by Macmillan Canada); and

Raising Vegetarian Children by Joanne Stepaniak and Vesanto Melina (published by McGraw-Hill Books).

You can also check out the other vegetarian cookbooks mentioned in book reviews.