Vegetarianism the Safe Way?>

Vegetarianism the Safe Way

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

Being a vegetarian has both health and environmental advan­tages. You may shun meat for animal welfare or religious rea­sons, too. You need not be 100 percent vegetarian, though—eating a few meatless meals a week or just reducing the amount of meat on your plate is enough to reap some benefits.

There are many ways to be a vegetarian: Strict vegetarians, or vegans, avoid all animal products, including meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs, as well as anything derived from animals (such as gelatin, which comes from pigs or other animals, and often honey). Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs along with plant foods. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy foods. Ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy. Pesco-vegetarians eat fish. Pollo-vegetarians eat poultry. Semi-vegetarians or flexitarians rely mainly on plant foods but eat meat on occasion.

Here’s how to go vegetarian in a safe and nutritious way.

What are some health benefits of being vegetarian?

Plant­-based diets—with lots of vegetables, legumes (beans, len­tils, peas), fruits, whole grains, nut, and seeds—are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers, notably colorectal cancer. Vegetarians tend to weigh less and have lower cholesterol levels and fewer digestive prob­lems, such as constipation. Vegetarian diets are high in fiber, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—and low in saturated fat and cholesterol—all of which may contribute to the health benefits. Vegetarians also benefit, no doubt, from the fact that they tend to lead healthier lives in general.

Isn’t it hard to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet?

No. Vegetarians typically consume less protein than meat eaters but can still easily meet their needs. Legumes are top sources of protein, but grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables all provide some. Meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and soy crumbles, pro­vide about as much protein, ounce for ounce, as meat. If you choose a variety of foods—especially if you eat some dairy and eggs—you should get all the protein you need.

Do you have to combine certain foods at every meal to get “complete” protein?

No. Animal foods provide all nine essential amino acids needed to make a “complete protein,” whereas plant foods, with a few exceptions (notably soy and quinoa), are incomplete, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. Complementary protein sources—such as beans and tortillas, or peanut butter and bread—provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. It used to be thought that you had to eat complementary proteins at the same time. But research has shown that you only need to consume all the essential amino acids over the course of a day, which is easy to do if you eat a variety of plant foods.

Are all vegetarian diets healthy?

Not necessarily. It’s easy, in fact, to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet. Lots of junk foods—chips, cookies, candy and soda—are vegetarian. A vegetarian who eats mostly refined grains, fried foods and sweets, for example, will have a less healthy diet than someone who eats lean meat and dairy in moderation and consumes lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Are vegetarians at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency?

Vegans are at greatest risk. Animal products are the only reliable sources of vitamin B12, which is important for the nervous system and to prevent anemia. If you eat no animal foods, look for B12 fortified products such as some soy milks and breakfast cereals, and/or take a B12 supplement. Some brewer’s and nutritional yeasts are fortified with B12—but not all are, so check the labels.

What about other vitamins and minerals?

Some vegetarians may also fall short in zinc, calcium, vitamin D and iron, depending on their diets, and should consider taking a daily multivitamin/mineral pill, as well as calcium and vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D2, as opposed to D3, always comes from non­animal sources. Zinc is found in legumes, grains, wheat germ, soy and nuts, though it’s not as well absorbed as the zinc in meat and milk. Some leafy greens (such as broccoli, collards and kale), tofu (processed with a calcium salt), dried figs, tahini and almonds provide calcium.

If you don’t consume dairy products, look for calcium-fortified beverages, such as soy milk, and other calcium-fortified foods. Some breakfast cereals, nondairy milks and juices are also fortified with vitamin D. Because the iron in plant foods (nonheme) is not as well absorbed as the iron in meat (heme iron), vegetarians may need to consume more iron. Vitamin C and other substances in fruits and vegetables enhance the absorption of nonheme iron, so it’s a good idea to include fruits or vegetables that are rich in vitamin C with every meatless meal (eat beans with a tomato salad or glass of orange juice, for instance). Still, vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of anemia or lower iron stores than nonvege­tarians. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about whether you need any supplements.

I don’t eat fish—should I take an omega-3 supplement?

Maybe, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Vegetar­ian diets supply a plant form of omega­3 fats, called alpha­lino­lenic acid (ALA), found in flax and hempseeds, walnuts, canola oil and soy, as well as in some green leafy vegetables and vege­table oils. But plant sources lack eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the omega­-3s found predomi­nantly in fish, which are needed for brain development and are good for your heart. The body converts only very small amounts of ALA to EPA and DHA. ALA may have its own health benefits, but it can’t substitute for EPA and DHA. Vegan omega­-3 supplements supply EPA/DHA from marine algae as opposed to fish oil. You don’t need supplemental ALA, as from flaxseed capsules.

Are vegetarians at higher risk for bone loss and osteoporosis?

The evidence is inconsistent. Bone density and fracture risk are affected by many dietary, lifestyle, environmental, hormonal and genetic factors. Some studies suggest that vegans, who con­sume less calcium, are at higher risk of fractures. But others sug­gest that some things about vegetarian diets—such as phyto­estrogens from soy foods, vitamin K from fruits and vegetables and the lower levels of acid­-forming compounds in the diets—are beneficial for bones.

A 2009 analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians, especially vegans, have lower bone density—but the effect is so modest that it’s unlikely to increase the risk of fracture. To best protect your bones, consume adequate calcium, vita­min D and protein; do regular weight­-bearing exercise; keep alcohol intake moderate; and don’t smoke—the same advice nonvegetarians should follow.

Why is going meatless better for the environment?

Producing meat—beef in particular—requires more energy and causes more pollution than does the growing of plant foods.

Ac­cording to a recent study from Loma Linda University, an ani­mal­-based diet uses about three times more water and fossil fuels, 13 times more fertilizer and 40 percent more pesticides than a vegetar­ian diet (growing grains for livestock requires lots of fertilizer and pesticides). And a 2009 report from the Worldwatch Institute blamed at least half of all human­-caused greenhouse gas emis­sions—at least 32,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year—on live­stock. Skipping red meat and dairy products just one night a week for a year saves the equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions produced by driving 760 miles, other research has estimated.