Everyone knows that vegetables are good to eat, but not everyone knows what it means to be a vegetarian. For years now there has been more talk about the benefits of becoming vegetarian and if you are like most people you may be wondering why and how do you become one?
There are different categories of vegetarianism. To be a vegetarian is to avoid consuming animal flesh (or as a young patient says “anything with a face”). If a vegetarian avoids meat but uses eggs they would be called an ovo- vegetarian. If they use dairy products they would be a lacto- vegetarian. Of course, you can combine the two and be a lacto- ovo- vegetarian. Some people chose to be a vegan which is a vegetarian who completely avoids any animal origin products including eggs, dairy, honey and gelatin. Vegans often extend this idea beyond their diet and avoid using leather, wool and silk products.
There are numerous arguments for why people chose to become a vegetarian. Better health is one of the most common reasons. By eating a vegetarian diet a person decreases their intake of pesticides, cholesterol and saturated fat. Eating vegetarian fare dramatically reduces the risk of heart disease, athersclerosis, many types of cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity. By not eating animal we also have less of a chance of contracting illnesses that typically originate from meat such as E.coli, Salmonella or Camphylobacter and eliminate the risk of being infected by “Mad Cow” or the Asian bird flu. Everyone at any stage of life can easily become vegetarian. The main people who may be at a higher risk of a nutrient deficiency are those who chose to vegan.
For a vegan Mom it is recommended to breast feed their infant for preferably the first two years. A vegan infant who is breast feeding will need more iron once they reach four months and if a vegan Mom is breast feeding and not utilizing a high source of vitamin D or B12 herself she should supplement these to her infant until they are at least two years old. As with most changes in life it is better to become a vegetarian slowly. Your digestion has to adjust to its new fuel and it also takes time to get used to cooking with new ingredients. Go into this change assuming that cooking time will be longer in the beginning until you are accustomed to your new recipes.
One of the first questions that people have who want to become a vegetarian is “How can I make sure I am getting enough protein?”. The biological reality is that humans need very little protein in their diets (less than 5% of total caloric intake according to the World Health Organization). Most North Americans eat four to six times the amount of protein required for good health. It is possible to obtain all of your protein needs from vegetable sources, but it is necessary to combine certain foods to provide complementary amino acid combinations to assure a complete protein.
The following is a simplified way to think of how to combine these foods; a grain (rice, wheat, etc…) or corn combined with beans or lentils create a complete protein (e.g. refried beans with corn chips or lentil soup and crackers). Grains can also be combined with nuts or seeds to create a complete protein (e.g. nuts in a muffin).
Iron is another nutrient that concerns people when they want to make the change to becoming vegetarian. This should not be an issue as iron is abundant in dried fruit, blackstrap molasses, dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed and beans. If you also chose to eliminate dairy products from your diet you will need to make sure that you are getting enough Calcium and vitamin D. Although dairy is high in calcium it is not a great source as it is not very bioavailable, that is, easy to absorb. Foods high in calcium include beans, broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed, nuts and seeds. If relying on dark green leafy vegetables for calcium it is best to not only use bitter greens as the oxalic acid contained in them makes the calcium less bioavailable, much like dairy products. There are also many dairy substitutes available that are fortified and great sources of calcium, Vitamin D and B 12.
With the multitude of health benefits from becoming a vegetarian and the growing problems with our sources of meat, vegetarianism is going to become much more popular in the near future. Most doctors even now agree that having a few meatless dinners a week would greatly decrease the growing number of people with chronic diseases and the load on our health system. If you would like more detailed information on the topic of becoming a vegetarian including great advice on meal plans and recipes find the book “Becoming Vegetarian” by Melina, Davis and Harrison.