Going Vegetarian is Easier than you think

An article by Nan Fornal, reprinted from "Taste for Life" magazine

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There are as many reasons to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle as there are types of vegetarians, which range from vegan, who consume no animal products, to those who occasionally eat some meat. The driving force may be a person's feelings about animals and cruelty. Environmental concerns or religious reasons inspire others. Still others choose to become vegetarians for their health.

Health Benefits
At last, the vegetarian diet has found a place in mainstream eating plans. In a position paper issued jointly with the Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) says that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. "ůVegetarian diets," the paper continues, "offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamin C and E and phytochemicals."

Now raising concerns as a potential epidemic in this country (partly because of the large number of children and youth developing the disease), Type 2 diabetes occurs less often in vegetarians, as does high blood pressure. People eating a plant-based diet also have lower cholesterol, lower body mass indexes (a measure of obesity), and lower rates of death from some kinds of heart disease than those whose diet is not plant based. Rates of both colon and prostate cancer among vegetarians are lower than those of non vegetarians. No wonder that groups like the American Institute of Cancer Research, the American Heart Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics today recommend plant-based diets, with a minimum of meat.

Making the Leap
Going vegetarian means more than leaving an empty spot on the plate where meat used to be. Whether you intend to cut down on the amount of animal protein in your diet or to eliminate it altogether, a little research can go a long way in preventing deficiencies of vital nutrients. For many, the two main dietary concerns are protein and calcium.

Vegetarian Protein
As long as you eat a variety of high-quality plant foods and enough good food to maintain energy, protein shouldn’t be an issue. The Traditional Healthy Vegetarian Diet Pyramid developed by Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust includes recommendations for high-protein foods that, along with brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables, should make up the greatest part of a vegetarian diet:

  • Whole Grains
    Barley, Bulgur, Flax, Kasha, Millet, Oats, Rice, Rye Wheat
  • Legumes
    Beans, (including black beans, black eyed peas, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans, red beans), peanuts, soy (including tofu).

Plant Based Calcium
Calcium is, of course, another nutrient that’s necessary for overall health and bone strength. Research has shown that vegetarians who use some dairy foods consume an amount of calcium comparable to that consumed by those who are not vegetarians. Even vegans can build and maintain healthy bones and teeth by including the following foods in their daily eating plans:

  • Green Vegetables
    Especially broccoli and dark, leafy greens such as kale
  • Legumes
    Beans (kidney beans for example, contain about 144 mg of calcium per cup), tofu (read the label to be sure it's been processed with calcium sulfate), and soymilk (with calcium added).

Supplementing the Vegetarian Diet
Most Americans, whether they’re omnivores or vegetarians, benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral formula. For vegetarians, licensed nutritionist Frances M. Berg, MS, adjunct professor at the University of North Dakota, School of Medicine, emphasizes the need for vitamin B12, which she calls an “essential vitamin missing in plant foods.” Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to conceive need vitamin B12 and at least 400 micrograms of folate. Parents of vegetarian children and adolescents want to be sure their diets include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and sources of vitamin D (especially important where sun exposure is limited or sun block is used), such as cod liver oil.

Make Mealtime Easy
Fortunately, incorporating nutritious vegetarian dishes into your conventional meal planning isn’t difficult. If people in your house have a variety of eating styles, start with a dish made with the most restrictive diet in mind, and build from there. Start with a casserole combining vegetables and brown rice that will satisfy a vegan, and then include separate dishes such as grated cheddar cheese, yogurt, broiled salmon, deviled eggs, so that all the diners can add what they want to their plates.

Better for the Environment
In terms of negative effects on the environment, eating meat is number two on a list compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). For example, beef production accounts for 17 times more water pollution damage than pasta production, according to Warren Leon, PhD, coauthor of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices and Is our Food Safe? (Three Rivers Press, 1999 and 2002, respectively). “Because it also uses far more land than grain, the production of beef is 20 times more threatening to wildlife habitats than the production of pasta,” he says.

Antibiotic resistance is another area of concern for people who choose vegetarianism for environmental reasons. According to UCS estimates, “70 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy pigs, cows, and chickens to promote growth and prevent disease.” This group also reports that “the Centers for Disease Control considers animal use of antibiotics to be the major cause of food-borne illnesses that resist treatment with antibiotics.”

Selected sources

“Food and Environment,” Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org
“How Do You Define ‘Vegetarian’?", "Test Your vegetarian IQ," UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, 1/05
“Is Vegetarian Eating Really Healthier?” by Karen Collins, MS, RD
“What No Meat?! What to Do When Your Kid Becomes a Vegetarian" by Debra Halperin and Emily Anderson Greene (ECWPress, 2003)


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