“The unhealthy vegan/vegetarian” - sounds like an oxymoron, but it does exist. Are you or do you know someone who leads a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle ladened with processed soy-filled fake meat and imitation cheese products, french fries, potatoes, pasta, bread, and rice with little to no vegetables? Warning: You are doing you body more harm than good!
Ensuring optimization of nutrients is essential with a vegetarian and especially a vegan lifestyle. If you are a full-time veghead or considering becoming one, check out my guidelines to make sure you are meeting your micro-and-macronutrient needs.
Protein: Research shows that plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant products are consumed. An assortment of plant-based foods eaten throughout the day can provide optimal amounts of essential amino acids. Complementary proteins do not need to be consumed during the same meal in order for the consumer to receive optimal protein intake. Vegans should consume a higher amount of protein than meat eaters, since the protein in plant-based foods is lower in digestibility. Plant-based proteins include legumes, whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread, quinoa), nuts and nut butters, seeds, beans, tofu, tempeh, eggs, and yogurt, (if you are lacto-ovo).
B12: B12 is a nutrient that assists with nerve and blood cell function and helps create DNA. B12 is primarily found in animal products and therefore, vegans and vegetarians are often at risk of having a deficiency. If you are lacto-ovo, than you are consuming B12 from eggs. Vegan sources include nutritional yeast, fortified foods, and supplements.
Iron: The iron in plant-based food is called non-heme iron. Calcium, certain groups called phytates, and polyphenolics found in tea, coffee, and cocoa can impede the absorption of iron. Pairing a source of non-heme iron with a Vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable can enhance iron absorption. Soaking, sprouting, and leavening can also increase the availability of iron. Since the bioavailability of iron in vegan sources is less, the daily requirements are increased. Vegan iron sources include baked potato with skin, tofu, spinach, cooked kale, dried apricots, raisins, fortified grains, and nuts.
Zinc: Zinc is similar to iron because the same groups of foods can decrease absorption. Vitamin C, soaking, sprouting, and leavening help optimize absorption. Vegan sources of zinc include beans, cashews, oatmeal, almonds, and peas.
Calcium: Calcium is essential for bone and teeth health. The bioavailability of calcium in vegan and vegetarian sources vary, and some veghead sources hinder calcium absorption. Oxalates in foods like Swiss chard and spinach reduce the body’s absorption of calcium. Veghead friendly calcium sources include bok choy, kale, broccoli, collard greens, almonds, sesame seeds, beans and fortified products.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is an essential vitamin linked to bone health as well as to many hormonal actions throughout the body. Vitamin D is coupled with sunlight exposure, yet variables include time of day, skin pigment, sunscreen usage, season, latitude, and age. Vitamin D is found in some vegan foods like mushrooms, fortified nut and soy milks, orange juice, breakfast cereals, and supplements.
Omega 3: Diets that are lacking in fish and eggs are also devoid of essential EPA and DHA, fatty acids which are essential for cardiovascular health and eye and brain development. Plant-based Omega 3 is found in ALA fatty acids, which convert to EPA and DHA. Sources of ALA include flax seeds, walnuts, and non-GMO canola oil.
Why go veg? A diet based primarily on vegetarian protein, vegetables, fruit, good fat, and whole grains is shown to have positive implications in terms of cardiovascular health, lowering cholesterol, weight management, and decreasing the risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
The key to any diet is to ensure that fruits, vegetables, lean protein, good fats, and whole grains are the predominant elements. These food groups are loaded with phytonutrients, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory components and satiating fiber. They also aid digestion and help ensure regularity. Becoming a vegetarian or a vegan is a fantastic way to eat clean, support animal welfare, improve cardiovascular health, and optimize your well-being, but you must do it right in order to fully see the benefits.