You’ve decided to go veggie. So you stock up on soy burgers, banish beef and pile on the pasta. At restaurants, you stick with salads — hold the ham, bring on the cheese and eggs (gotta get that protein!). For good measure, you even snack on fruit instead of chips once in a while. With your carnivorous ways behind you, you’re sure to reap all the health benefits associated with vegetarianism: decreased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. Right?
Not necessarily. Although abstaining from meat, fish and poultry defines vegetarianism, many new converts fill the hole left on their plates with high-fat dairy products and eggs. Yet the health benefits of vegetarianism are primarily due to a complex of factors in plant foods. Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds rank as excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals — nonvitamin substances in plants — all of which appear to help stave off chronic diseases.
Contrary to popular belief, people who eat a variety of plant foods don’t need to load up on cheese and eggs for the sake of getting protein. Protein really isn’t a big concern unless you’re, say, only eating fruit. Even vegans — vegetarians who go without eggs, milk and other dairy foods — usually suffer no shortage of protein because they get the nutrient from breads, cereals, pasta, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
What’s more, the long-held notion that vegetarians must carefully “combine” protein-rich foods at one meal to get a complete mix of essential amino acids (protein building blocks) has been largely dispelled, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA). A wide variety of foods eaten throughout the day seems to cover most people’s protein needs.
Getting enough vitamin B12, on the other hand, is an issue for those who opt for meatless meals, as animal foods are virtually the only source of the nutrient. Although some herbivores rely on sea vegetables for the vitamin, those items contain a form of B12 that the body can’t absorb. Dietitians advises vegetarians to take a standard multivitamin supplement containing B12 or to regularly eat breakfast cereals fortified with the nutrient.
For vegans, who miss out on all the calcium in milk and other dairy foods, getting enough of that bone-building mineral poses a challenge. Although kale, collard and other leafy greens contain a decent amount of the nutrient, it’s fairly difficult to get enough calcium from plant foods. One alternative is soy, rice or almond milk — many varieties of which are fortified with calcium in concentrations comparable to milk. Calcium-fortified orange juice also ranks as an excellent source of the mineral, with one cup chalking up about 25 percent to 30 percent of most people’s daily needs. In addition, some brands of tofu contain substantial amounts of calcium.
Vegans also need to home in on sources of vitamin D, another bone-builder that is added to milk. Good sources include fortified soy milk and breakfast cereals, multivitamin supplements and exposure to sunlight, which triggers vitamin D production in the skin.
Both vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy- and egg-eating vegetarians) also should take care to get enough iron. Granted, the rate of iron-deficiency anemia is no higher among vegetarians than meat eaters, says the ADA. Nevertheless, it’s more difficult for the body to absorb the iron in plant foods than the iron in animal products. Be aware of good sources of iron — dried beans, soy products, dried fruits, dark green vegetables. Iron is best absorbed if eaten with vitamin C, so consuming citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes or other good sources of C with iron-rich foods boosts absorption of the mineral. Zinc can also be a problem for some vegetarians, who should try to regularly eat zinc-rich foods such as fortified cereals, beans, soy-based products like tofu and wheat germ.
Overall, people who want to go veggie can relax and realize they’re not going to have to buy 30 vegetarian cookbooks. At first, try tinkering with your usual fare. Instead of burgers and chips, for instance, eat a veggie burger on a bun with a tossed salad and steamed vegetables. Or pick up textured vegetable protein — a soy-based product found in the natural food section of many supermarkets. This high-fiber, high-calcium product lends a meaty-texture to foods. Swap it for beef in meal-time staples like spaghetti sauces and chili. Pasta with vegetables, bean-based soups served with bread and salad, vegetable lasagna, meatless pizza, and even good old peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches fit easily into vegetarian menus.
And for those who just can’t fathom life without a steak once in a while? Sometimes people have an all-or-nothing attitude, but any step that you take toward eating a more plant-based diet is a good thing.