Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Get Stuffed

Smart Vegetarians

There’s more to a vegetarian diet than cutting out meat

You wouldn’t put any fluids in your car without asking a mechanic or reading the owner’s manual, yet many vegetarians cut meat out of their diets without talking to a dietician or consulting a book on the topic.

It’s not a simple matter of finding a non-meat source of protein to replace meat. The whole chemistry of your body changes, and to stay healthy, you’re going to require a diet that’s balanced a little differently than what you’re used to. Even if you’re getting all the right foods, you may be getting the proportions wrong; too much of one thing and not enough of another.

"Depending on the type of vegetarian you are, some things are going to be a little more difficult to work into your diet," says Karen Hagen, a registered dietician who gave a presentation at Meadow Park on Nov. 17 entitled The Smart Vegetarian.

"Once you know what those things are and how to get them, vitamins and nutrients and so on, it does get easier."

It’s not an exact science, but there are some basic daily requirements a budding vegetarian should at least be aware of.

The presentation covered the essentials, such as the benefits of a vegetarian diet, basic dietary guidelines, daily requirements, balanced diets, and the most common mistakes vegetarians make.

The Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

Although environmental and ethical reasons are important to most vegetarians, the number one reason people cut meat out of their diets is health, according to Hagen.

"The American Cancer Association, the American Heart Association, they are all in agreement that vegetarian diets contribute to better health, and recommend vegetarian diets to patients who are ill," she says.

There are different types of vegetarians, from Vegans, who don’t consume any animal products, including honey, to semi-vegetarians, who eat small amounts of meat, typically fish or poultry, once in a while. Then there are Lacto vegetarians who consume dairy products, and Lacto-ovo, who will have dairy and eggs. Even a semi-vegetarian diet can have dramatic health benefits, although every kind of vegetarian will have to take care to make sure they are getting all the basics from the food they do allow themselves.

The principle health benefits are:

Low obesity – "Ever seen a fat vegetarian?" asks Hagen. Vegetarian diets are typically higher in fruits and vegetables, promote faster metabolism, and are lower in fat and calories. It takes about 15 minutes to digest an apple, for example, while it could take a full day or even longer to digest a steak.

Lower cholesterol, less heart disease and stroke – Studies show that a vegetarian diet can lower cholesterol, while the higher potassium intake lowers blood pressure. There are other benefits that are more difficult to prove, such as lower stress, better sleep, and a higher awareness of food and health issues, that contributes to better cardiovascular health.

Reduced cancer risk – The factors that have been identified as contributors to various cancers are multiple and varied, but on the whole cancer rates among vegetarians are lower than among meat eaters. People who eat less meat than average also have lower rates. There are several possible scientific reasons for this, but on the whole vegetarians consume cleaner foods (fewer toxins and carcinogens); consume more fruits and vegetables, which can help clean blood and are healthier for the body and organs; and have better immune systems. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians are up to 50 per cent less likely to die from cancer than non-vegetarians.

Reduced diabetes – Diabetes is related to diet, and can be controlled – and even reversed in some cases – by adopting a low fat, vegetarian diet. It’s lower in complex carbohydrates, which allows insulin to work more effectively, and it’s easier for a diabetic person to regulate glucose levels. While a vegetarian diet cannot eliminate the need for insulin in people with insulin-dependent (childhood onset) diabetes, it can often reduce the amounts of insulin used.

There is no evidence that a vegetarian diet means living a longer life, although people from some cultures that consume less meat on average have longer lifespans. Heredity and exercise are still important factors in determining whether or not you will contract an illness, but diet is important.

"Studies show that if you’re a gardener and grow fruits and vegetables, you’re going to have a longer life," says Hagen.

The Unified Dietary Guidelines – The Basics

Most health organizations have considered the vegetarian issue, and have come to a unified agreement as to what a basic vegetarian diet requires:

Eat a variety of foods

Choose most of what you want from plant sources

Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day

Eat six or more servings of bread, pasta and cereal grains each day

Eat high fat foods sparingly, especially those from animal sources

Keep your intake of simple sugars to a minimum

Most people who become vegetarians stick to what they know in the kitchen, putting toast in the toaster, and boiling rice and pasta. It will fill you up but it won’t help you meet your nutritional requirements, warns Hagen; "It’s vegetarian, not grain-itarian." Grains are also high in fats, are often processed with simple sugars, and while they are a great source for quick energy, they can wear you down in the long run.

To get a sense of what you should be eating and how much, check out the Vegan Food Guide, a pyramid you’ll probably recognize from health education, at .

The Daily Requirements

Two to three servings of beans aside, there are four nutritional essentials that are absolutely necessary for health, Calcium, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids;

Calcium – "A lot of doctors and dieticians believe we’re in a crisis situation when it comes to calcium right about now. In most cases of osteoporosis, calcium is a food group that’s lacking," says Hagen.

"You need 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day. Some athletes who sweat a lot need more, maybe 1,500 milligrams. If they don’t have enough calcium in their system when they exercise, the body is going to get it from another source, your bones." The older you get, the more you need to combat bone loss.

With or without dairy in your diets, you’re going to require six to eight servings a day. A half-cup of milk or yogurt, or about one ounce of cheese equals one serving.

Non dairy sources include tahini (two tablespoons is one serving), almond butter (three tbsp.), almonds (1/3 cup), broccoli, kale, bok choy (one cup cooked, two cups raw), dried seaweed (1/4 cup), Tofu made with calcium (1/4 cup), legumes (one cup), molasses (one tbsp.) and five dried figs.

"It sounds hard, but when you’re shopping make sure you buy calcium fortified foods. If you’re still worried, then take a supplement. All of the athletes I work with are on supplements."

Choose calcium carbonate, citrate or citrate-malate supplements, check the level of elemental calcium, and make sure Vitamin D is also added.

Vitamin B12 – This vitamin is required to metabolize amino and fatty acids, promote cell division, protect nerve cells, and aid in the maturation of red blood cells. A deficiency in B12 can lead to Anemia, damaged red blood cells, damage to nerves and spinal cord, weakness, fatigue, balance problems, numbness, tingling, confusion (an inability to concentrate), and physical changes in the tongue.

Typically B12 only comes from animal sources, although that doesn’t necessarily disprove the theory that early man evolved as a vegetarian – you can get a daily dose from the bacteria that is found on unwashed fruits and nuts.

Your goal is to get between two and three micrograms per day. One egg provides about 0.7 mcgs, a cup of milk about 1 mcgs, and 3/4 cups of yogurt about 0.6 mcgs.

Vegans can get B12 from fortified products such as tofu (5 mcgs), fortified soy milk (2 mcgs), and Red Star Yeast (2 mcgs). Avoid Vitamin C supplements over 500 mg.

Vitamin D – While sunlight is still our best source of Vitamin D, "It’s not a daily guarantee in B.C.," says Hagen. Many products, including milk, fortified soy/rice milk, fortified margarine and eggs can supplement your Vitamin D intake.

As for sun, doctor’s recommend 10 to 15 minutes a day for light skin, and up to 30 minutes a day for dark skin.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Omega-3 fats are a structural component in the grey matter of the brain, the retina of the eye, and cell membranes. In other words, they’re extremely important. Deficiencies can lead to chronic disease, immune/inflammatory disorders and neurological disorders.

Fish is high in Omega-3, but it’s relatively easy to get on a vegetarian diet if you know where to look.

An average woman requires about 1,800 kilo-caolories per day, and about 1.1 grams of Omega-3s per every 1,000 kcal. One teaspoon of flaxseed or hemp oil provides about 2.7 grams, two tbsp of flaxseed about 5.2 grams, and three tbsp of walnuts about 2.1 grams. Soybean oil and soybeans also contain smaller amounts.

Iron – It’s also relatively easy to get your average iron content through a balanced diet, unless all you eat are grains. Sources include tofu, lentils, beans, hummus, soy milk, tahini, almond butter, cream of wheat, potatoes, seaweed, prunes and molasses. Vitamin C helps absorption, and the use of cast iron pans can also provide iron.

A Balanced Diet

You should try to eat from at least three of the four food groups with every meal, and include both protein and carbohydrate food.

Carb’s are not a problem for most people, but protein can be a challenge. Two to three servings is often enough for an average person. A serving is a half cup of beans, a third of a cup of tofu, three or four tbsp nuts or seeds, two or three tbsp of nut or seed butter, one cup of soy milk, or one large egg.

Too much protein can leach calcium from your body, says Hagen, so be careful not to overdo protein intake. Too little can be harmful, so Hagen suggest adding beans or tofu to everything, from pasta sauce to salads.

Carbohyrdates are easy to come by, and so it is often possible to exceed the daily recommendation of six to 11 servings. A third bowl of cereal and a couple of pieces of toast can put you over the edge before you even get to lunch.

If you’re getting too many carbs, the symptoms are hunger every one or two hours, cravings for sweets, persistent body fat, more hair loss, more colds and flus, low energy and dry, itchy skin.

Common Vegetarian Mistakes

A vegetarian diet can go horribly wrong if you go about it carelessly. Daily requirements can be difficult to meet, but if you try to average out your intakes over a period of days, taking more of one thing on one day and less on another, you can succeed.

One common mistake to watch out for is an unbalanced diet – you could be eating the best foods, but in the wrong quantities and proportions it may be doing more harm than good. Make sure you eat everything on your plate, not just the choice morsels.

Don’t rely on cheese for protein, either – you’d have to eat a lot to get your daily requirement of protein, and it’s extremely high in fats.

Don’t nix fat from your diet – you need it to live.

Lastly, don’t skip on foods that provide you with key nutrients, such as fruits and vegetables.

For more information on vegetarian diets, Hagen recommends visiting the following Web sites, and . You can also use the provincial Dial-a-Dietician service at 1-800-667-3438.