A Vegetarian Diet: Does it Equate to Good Health?
While there are lots of upsides to vegetarian eating, being vegetarian does not automatically equate to good health. Just like our meat-eating counterparts, we have to be conscious of what we put in our bodies. Fortunately, the problems that accompany a vegetarian diet are easy to remedy with a little education and a few small adjustments to diet and shopping habits. We touched briefly on this in a past post, but here are some of the health problems vegetarians need to be aware of:
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency is common among people in the Western world, but people on a vegetarian diet have to pay special attention to this vitamin because it is most often found in animal-based foods. Deficiency can lead to a range of problems such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and other issues that often involve the stomach. In severe cases, B12 deficiency can lead to irreversible nerve damage.
Many vegetarians can increase B12 by eating eggs, cheese and milk. It is a good idea to discuss your vegetarian diet with your doctor and maybe even get tested. Women with nursing infants need to be especially careful as B12 deficiency in her can lead to damaging B12 deficiency in her baby.
Fatty Vegetarian Food
Yes, it’s true. Some vegetarian foods are quite fatty. It is especially common for new vegetarians to think that they can just substitute eggs and cheese for meat with no adverse effects. The trouble with eggs and cheese is that they contain proportionately higher amounts of cholesterol and saturated fats.
For example, 1 ounce of cheddar cheese has 9g of fat and 7g of protein. In contrast, 1 ounce pulled pork has only 6g fat and 6 grams of protein. Eggs are better, averaging 5 g fat and 6 grams protein each. Unfortunately, eggs are loaded with cholesterol – one egg has about 70% of your daily needs.
So what are vegetarians to do? Eat lean, protein-rich vegetarian foods to make up for meat in the diet. Eat cheeses and eggs in moderation. Read on because we dive into protein next!
The consensus is that 10-35% of your daily calorie consumption should come from protein. This means that people should be consuming at least 45 g protein daily (based on an 1800 calorie diet) with many of us needing 100 grams daily or more. Since protein and fat often come together, we have to be careful about what we eat.
If there is not enough protein in our vegetarian diets, we will most certainly have problems. Indicators of protein deficiency include low energy, moodiness, lethargy, slow healing, insomnia, fainting, thinning hair, and more.
Fortunately there are lots of tasty ways to make sure you are getting enough protein. Some of my favorite sources of protein rich vegetarian foods include beans, squash seeds, nuts, quinoa, avocado, wild rice, sunflower seeds. For those of you who follow any type of ovo-lacto vegetarian diets, be sure to eat eggs, milk, and cheese regularly, but in moderation.
Omega -3 Fatty Acids Deficiency
Omega-3s are critical to many body functions, and most often come from fatty fish like tuna or salmon. Omega3s are a leading reason why many vegetarians choose to become fish-eating vegetarians, or pescatarians. Shortage of Omega-3s can lead to mental health issues such as depression, skin problems, fatigue, circulatory problems, and more severe menstrual symptoms.
Omega-3s are a little tricky because there are three different types and the science is unclear. DHA and EPA are found only in food from the sea, while ALA is found in some plants. Scientists are debating if plant-based ALAs are as beneficial as fish-based EPA and DHA. It is known that the body can convert ALAs to more useful EPA and DHA, but the debate is still out on how beneficial it is. Algae extracts are gaining traction because they have DHA, EPA, and are a 100% vegetarian food.
Primary sources for Omega-3 are fish, organ meats, and eggs. Plant-based Omega-3s come from vegetarian foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, canola and soy – but beware canola and soy products because they are pretty much all GMO these days.
Iron is required to prevent anemia. Iron deficiency is not exclusive to vegetarian diet, but we often have more problems than our meat-eating counterparts. Iron from animal sources is easier for the body to digest than plant-based iron. Iron is also tricky for vegetarians because we eat more fruits and veggies, and therefore more fiber. Generally fiber is a good thing, but too much can make it difficult to absorb iron!
To make sure you get enough iron, eat plenty of dark leafy greens and beans. Kale, spinach, kidney beans, and more are excellent sources of iron. In addition, if you can include a little vitamin C with your iron rich food, your body will more readily absorb the iron.
While following a vegetarian diet does not necessarily equate to good health, it sure makes a difference. Like anything with food and diet, the key is moderation and good decision-making. If you know the pitfalls to avoid, then you can adjust your diet and avoid problems altogether. There is no reason being vegetarian has to mean anything but excellent health!
I would love to hear from you! Tell me about what you are doing to make sure that you are getting all the nutrition you need. Drop me a note here or shoot me an email.