Eating Well the Veggie Way

You can make any type of vegetarian diet a healthy one

4 min read

Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, pepperoni pizza. . .these are the foods Americans crave around the clock, right? Not necessarily. Research shows more and more Americans are choosing to eat vegetarian meals.

A 1999 survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that increasing amounts of American women -- over 2/3 of those surveyed -- are choosing vegetarian meals when they eat out.

  • 6% of the women said they always order a dish without meat, fish, or fowl
  • 14% of the women said they often order a dish without meat, fish or fowl
  • 45% of the women said they sometimes order a dish without meat, fish or fowl when they eat out

And of course many people choose vegetarian dishes for all of their meals. There are various types of vegetarianism, from a strictly "vegan" diet of all plant products, to diets that include various types of animal products.

People choose to eat vegetarian meals for all sorts of reasons: concern for animals, their health, the health of the planet, world hunger, religion. Or perhaps they just don't like the taste of meat. Regardless, if you're considering starting a vegetarian diet, it's a good idea to get information from your doctor first.

From a nutritional perspective, this is a great trend. By eating less meat and more vegetable-based entrees, people are likely to be eating less saturated fat and cholesterol and more fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.

Phytochemicals are plant compounds or chemicals, such as the lutein in broccoli and spinach or the lycopene in tomatoes and pink grapefruit, that may help prevent various diseases (like cancerous tumors) in three ways:

  • They have antioxidant properties (meaning they help protect your body's cells by countering the effects of toxic substances produced when the body processes oxygen).
  • They help activate enzymes that help make cancer-causing substances less toxic.
  • They help inhibit the rapid growth of tumor cells.)

Antioxidants are substances that help protect against oxygen damage by neutralizing the harmful effects of so-called "free radicals" -- the agents within the body that can damage cell membranes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes four food-based antioxidants; vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (including beta carotene), and selenium. You will find beta carotene and other carotenoids and vitamin C mainly in fruits and vegetables.

A recent German study found that some vegetarians -- particularly those who eat no animal products at all -- may end up with low vitamin B12 and iron levels. The study, which looked at vegans, lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians, found that vegans had the lowest counts of those nutrients.

It is easier to meet the dietary requirements for protein, calcium, iron, and B12 when your diet contains dairy and/or egg foods, as these foods are rich in some nutrients that plant foods have little or none of.

But the bottom line is that you can meet your nutritional needs on a vegan diet -- though you may need to include certain, high-nutrient plant foods and buy some special food products and/or supplements.

If you're a vegan, here are the nutrients you need to make sure you're getting enough of:

  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2). This is found in green leafy vegetables, whole and enriched grains, mushrooms, yeast, beans, seeds, and nuts.

  • Vitamin D. If you don't get out in the sun (with your hands, arms and face exposed) for at least five to 15 minutes per day, consider including a fortified food or supplement containing vitamin D. Some margarines and breakfast foods are fortified with vitamin D (check the labels).

  • Vitamin B-12. This is found only in animal foods so if you've cut out all dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and fowl, you'll probably need to add it to your diet. You may find it in some fortified soy milks, yeast, and breakfast cereals (like Grape-Nuts): The body can store enough B-12 for up to four years, so it can take a while for a deficiency to show up. If a deficiency develops, nerves can be damaged irreversibly and brain function can decrease.

  • Calcium. Fortified soy milk and orange juice are among the best vegan sources for calcium. Calcium is also found in tofu, almonds, beans, and green leafy vegetables.

  • Iron. There are some plant sources of iron -- whole grains, prune juice, dried fruits like raisins; beans; nuts and seeds; leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, peaches; apricots; and blackstrap molasses. But this type isn't absorbed as well by the body as the iron in animal foods. Eating these plant foods with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables will increase iron absorption.

  • Zinc. Whole grains, wheat germ, beans, nuts, and seeds are all good sources of zinc.

The key to eating healthy vegetarian meals all the time is variety, including fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products, nuts and seeds, and legumes (beans). The more variety in the meal, the more likely you'll be getting enough protein, vitamins and minerals.

Good sources of protein in a plant-based diet include lentils, beans, soy products, nuts, nut butters, and whole-grain breads and cereals.

It was once thought that vegetarians had to eat certain plant foods together to get complete protein (with all the essential amino acids provided), but simply eating a variety of protein-rich plant foods within the same day seems to be good enough.