Part 3 of 5
So far in this series that is meant to help people transition to a plant-based diet, I’ve talked about the many reasons why it’s a good idea to become vegetarian for your health, the planet, and animals. I’ve also explained how to take those first steps to become vegetarian with easy meat and dairy substitutes. Now it’s time to talk about how to be a healthy vegetarian.
Let me preface by saying that I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutritionist or any other type of health care professional. What I am is an avid-reading vegan that wants to be healthy. People ask me all the time what I do for protein or calcium. That’s the reason why I’m sharing this information with you. If you have specific concerns or questions, go see your doctor … and if they tell you to eat meat … find another one! That said, let’s get started.
There are some things – essential vitamins and nutrients – that all people need to be concerned with in their diets. However most people (albeit wrongly) assume they are getting all their essential vitamins and nutrients in an animal-based diet. By choosing a plant-based diet, I think it’s important to understand what foods actually fuel your body and which are total crap. Americans like to eat a lot of crap. Don’t let yourself be one of them! I know it’s kind of shocking but you don’t need to consume mass quantities of high-fructose corn syrup or carb up on pasta every night. There are other options.
A few months ago a good friend of mine, Mireille, decided to go vegetarian. She watched Earthlings and that was enough for her. She didn’t want to touch meat again. But she’s a busy woman with a career and kids who relied on fast food prior to becoming vegetarian. She was not an avid cook. She turned to pasta and baked potatoes to fill her meat void. But she gained weight in no time so I had to have a little nutritional intervention with her. There are other foods out there. Pasta is not the only vegetarian food on this planet! For some easy substitutes, see the post on How to Become Vegetarian. What Mireille, myself and many others didn’t realize is that we need certain vitamins and nutrients to feel good.
According to Dr. Michael Greger, the following is a guide for optimum vegan nutrition. Each of these micronutrients are of utmost importance:
Vitamin B-12 is needed for cell division and blood formation. Plants do not contain vitamin B-12.1 We only need 2,000mcg each week. This is a very small amount but a lack of B-12 can lead to anemia and irreversible nerve damage. So it is important to look for vitamin B-12 fortified foods like soy milk or cereal or to take a B-12 supplement. Vitamin B-12 deficiency isn’t just a vegan problem. There are a whole lot of meat-eating American suffering from this condition which is a growing area of concern for the health community.2 So get your B-12! It’s easy and painless. I take a couple drops of UltraPlan mega B-12 once a week.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important in preventing heart disease, depression and other health conditions.3 They are also thought to be an important brain nutrient for concentration and clarity. To not go all scientific on you … basically we need Omega-3s and our body can’t produce enough of them so we should make sure to eat some. Dr. Greger recommends 250-500mg daily of algae-derived DHA. Non vegans get Omega-3s from seafood, dairy and eggs. For an explanation why its a bad idea to get your Omega-3s from fish, see the post on Rethinking Fish Consumption. For a better way to get Omega-3s, you can find them in flaxseed, canola oil, soy products, hemp products, and walnuts as well as some leafy green vegetables. I eat at least a tablespoon of flaxseed every morning in a shake and take one Spectrum Vegetarian DHA capsule each day.
Vitamin D helps the body store the right amount of calcium and phosphorus in your blood—these are the 2 nutrients that work together to make your bones strong.4 If you don’t get enough vitamin D, you are more susceptible to osteoporosis and rickets. There are also side effects to having too much Vitamin D. The great thing about Vitamin D, is that your very own body can produce it with a little help from the sun. If you get 10-15 minutes of sunshine three times a week, that’s sufficient. For those of us in Arizona, this is not a problem! For those of you in Alaska, listen up. Make sure you get 5-15 mcg/day in a vitamin supplement.5
Calcium is a mineral and it’s important. Here’s why. It keeps our bones strong, nerves and muscles functioning, and blood clotting.6 I would say it’s pretty important. You should eat 600mg per day. Most people think that calcium comes from cows’ milk and cheese. Yea but it also comes with blood and puss! Some better sources of calcium include calcium-fortified soy milk, tofu, soybeans, broccoli, collard greens, kale, and other green veggies. For a more specific list see the post Vegetarian Calcium Sources.
Iodine is thought to prevent breast cancer and fibrocystic breast disease and to remove toxic chemicals from our bodies. And just like with the other nutrients, Americans are coming up short. Our iodine intake is way low and this lack of iodine has been found to cause goiter, hypothyroidism, mental retardation, and physical deformities.7 Don’t worry! You can get iodine very easily by adding a little iodized salt to your foods. Grocery stores sell a lot of salt that does not have iodine in it so make sure your salt is iodized. Dr. Greger and Dr. Miller recommend eating 150mcg per day. You can also eat too much iodine so go easy with that salt shaker and stick to the recommended amount.
Iron is important because it carries oxygen to all parts of the body. What would you do without oxygen? Um, you wouldn’t be around for very long. Lack of iron has been shown to reduce work capacity, endurance, intellectual performance, and infection resistance.8 Never fear, all you have to do is eat plenty of beans and dark green vegetables. According to Dr. Mangels, “Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat.”9 For vegetarians that eat crap, getting enough iron is likely a problem. So trade that diet soda for soy milk and those potato chips for broccoli and lentils. You’ll be much better off, I promise.
People quite frequently ask me about protein. First of all I think Americans are way to obsessed with protein. I guess we can thank Dr. Atkins for that … ahem … yet do I need to mention that he died of obesity and heart disease? So many people ask me about protein that I became quite concerned myself and since have read several sources that say roughly the same thing. Adult men need about 56 grams a day. Adult women need about 46 grams a day. This is a guide for people that are normal like me. Not for extreme athletes or pregnant women.
If you don’t get enough protein, it could mean danger for your muscles, bones, and cells. Now of course most people think protein comes from dead animals. But there are so many other great sources like: quinoa, beans, soy, and nuts. The Cornell China study suggests that plant-based proteins are healthier than those from animals.10 Here’s what I do to start my day off right. I make a big shake with a couple scoops of GenSoy protein powder. Combined with fruit, flaxseed, and one cup of soy milk, I have over 20 grams of protein just at breakfast. Then I make sure after lunch I have a handful (just one handful … don’t get carried away) of nuts. That’s another 10 grams of protein. Then I assume that my other meals more than cover the remaining 16 grams of protein needed. Pretty much all meals have some protein in them. If you’re curious about just how much protein foods have, see the resources section below.
While I have suggested some specific vitamins and food sources to optimum nutrition, you may also want to consider taking a multi-vitamin. As a former weight watcher’s participant, I will re-iterate their recommendation which is to take a multi-vitamin that limits the serving amount of each item to 100%. Some multi-vitamins say silly thing like 1,000% of your daily intake for a certain item. This is just ridiculous. All you need is 100% so try to find a multi-vitamin that sticks to the recommended amounts at 100%. Personally I like the Whole Foods 365 Adult Multi which I take once a day.
Now that you are armed with all of this powerful information about how to live a healthy vegan life, you may be wondering, how to find out exactly how much iron is in a piece of broccoli. Dr. Reed Mangels, whom I cited many times in this post, has a very comprehensive site with information about vegan health: www.vrg.org. He lists several foods and how they can add up to meet your daily essential nutrient intake. I also love the site: www.nutritiondata.com. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of each food’s nutritional content, Nutrition Data can help you do that. They have a calculator where you enter the foods and it gives you a plethora of details.
This was such a long post I feel like I need to say goodbye to you dear reader I hope this has been really helpful for you. Remember …. eat a well balanced diet of beans, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Lay off the pasta and high-fructose corn syrup. Just because they’re vegan doesn’t mean they’re good for you. As always if you have questions, please post a comment and I’ll get back to you or give you a resource that is more knowledgeable. Now go eat your veggies!
1. Vitamin B12 in the Vegan Diet by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/b12.htm.
2. Vitamin B12 Deficiency, American Family Physician, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20030301/979.html.
3. Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD, Questions and Answers about Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegans. Vegetarian Journal. Issue One 2007: 22-23.
4. Why Is Vitamin D So Important for Your Health? Internal Medicine World Report, Aug. 2007. http://www.imwr.com/issues/articles/2007-08_47.asp.
5. MedlinePlus, A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002405.htm.
6. Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD, Calcium in the Vegan Diet, http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.htm.
7. Miller, Donald W. Jr., MD, Iodine for Health, http://www.lewrockwell.com/miller/miller20.html.
8. Bersamin, Andrea, Hathaway, Cristy, Zidenberg-Cherr, Sheri, PhD. Nutrition and Health: Iron and Iron Deficiency Anemia. April 2004. http://nutrition.ucdavis.edu/content/infosheets/IronAndAnemiaFact.pdf
9. Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD, Iron in the Vegan Diet, http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.htm.
10. Protein: Are You Getting Enough? WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/nutrition-labels-9/protein?ecd=wnl_din_081009