Wave, March / April 2013
"Mom, Dad, I've decided to become a vegetarian."
These words have been known to strike fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. The reason: Many parents worry their son or daughter won't be able to get enough of the nutrients needed to maintain good health from a diet that does not include meat.
But if you happen to be one of these parents, you needn't worry. A vegetarian diet can be just as healthy as one that includes meat. In fact, a growing number of studies suggest that vegetarians tend to live longer, disease-free lives than those who eat meat.
According to a report prepared by the Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetics Association, those who follow a vegetarian diet will consume lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol than those who don't. They'll also consume more folate, magnesium, fibre, potassium, and antioxidants - all good things.
Moreover, a growing number of studies suggest that those who go meat-free on a nutritious and balanced diet are less at risk for a number of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, and kidney stones.
The key, of course, is the "nutritious" and "balanced" part.
Following a healthy vegetarian diet is more complicated than picking the meat out of an omnivorous meal. A vegetarian's health depends on replacing meat with alternatives such as eggs, legumes, tofu, and nuts that can provide the nutrients often found in more traditional meat-based diets. But that does not have to be difficult.
People often believe that one of the bigger challenges in making the transition to a vegetarian diet is making up for the protein that one normally obtains from meat. After all, meat's most famous role is as humanity's main source of protein. But the truth is protein can be found nearly everywhere you turn. In addition to the meat alternatives listed above, sources include milk, grains, and fish. Getting enough protein is actually the last thing to worry about in a vegetarian diet. Getting the right type of protein is the key.
Proteins, like words, are comprised of letters of an alphabet. Protein's "alphabet" contains 21 letters called amino acids. Nine of these are called essential because the human body needs to get them from food, while your body can make the rest of them itself. Foods high in these essential amino acids - such as meat, fish, milk and eggs - rate well on protein quality scores.
So how does a vegetarian get these proteins without eating animal products?
As a general rule, aim for a variety of different foods that contain protein. For example, wheat and kidney beans or rice and sunflower seeds combine to form a complete protein. Don't get stuck on eating your favourite bean or grain every day: try different ones like mung beans or millet.
There are other important nutritional issues to be aware of. For example, vegans are not able to get enough B12 with food alone. This vitamin helps promote healthy blood cells and prevent anemia. That means they may have to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
By and large, though, anyone wanting to become a vegetarian should be able to meet their nutritional needs without difficulty.
Jessica Penner is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.
Alternatives for key nutrients
A healthy vegetarian-based diet must include nutritional substitutes for meat. Here is a list of important nutrients found in meat-based diets, along with some tips on how to replace them with non-meat sources.
The form of iron found in animal products (heme iron) is more easily absorbed by our bodies than iron found in vegan sources (non-heme). Seeds, nuts, and legumes (like kidney beans and chickpeas) will provide some iron to vegans. It is best to pair it with a source of vitamin C such as tomatoes, oranges, or strawberries. The vitamin C changes the iron into a form our bodies absorb more easily.
The sad news is that this vitamin is found exclusively in animal products. If your teen is going vegan, she will need to take a B12 supplement. Since our bodies are very efficient at recycling B12, it can take a while for the deficiency to rear its ugly head.
The most potent source of this essential fat is found in fish. If fish is not in your vegetarian's future, plant sources include flax, chia, and hemp seeds.
Vegetarianism has always been popular with a segment of the population. A report by the Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetics Association several years ago says that an estimated four per cent of Canadian adults, or about 900,000 people, consider themselves to be vegetarians. Most people become vegetarians for health reasons, or because they are concerned about the environment or animal rights issues. The report notes that the private sector has responded to the increased interest in vegetarianism. More restaurants offer meat-free meals and supermarkets now stock a wider variety of products that cater to the vegetarian consumer.
People who choose to restrict their diet may fall into one of the following categories:
Vegetarian -- No meat, poultry, or fish
Lacto Vegetarian -- No meat, poultry, fish or eggs
Ovo Vegetarian -- No meat, poultry, fish or dairy
Vegan -- No animal products at all (no dairy, no eggs, no honey)
Flexitarian -- Primarily eats a vegetarian diet, but still includes a modest amount of meat, poultry, or fish
Working a vegetarian meal plan into your family's routine may seem overwhelming at first, but with a few tricks, you may find it easier than you thought. Here are a few ideas to help your teen make a healthy transition to a vegetarian diet:
Try vegetarian meals as a family. With all the health benefits of cutting back on meat, here's your chance to make a healthy lifestyle change for the whole family. Decide to celebrate "Meatless Mondays" and try a new vegetarian meal each week. Your teen will feel supported by legitimizing her decision.
Keep veggie ground round (TVP) and tofu on hand. When making recipes that call for ground meat, set aside a small portion using a vegetarian alternative called textured vegetable protein (TVP). Tofu is a great substitute for grilled or stir-fried meats.
Lentils, chickpeas, and beans. The legume family makes a great meat substitute. Try lentils in place of ground beef in spaghetti sauce. Top a salad with chickpeas instead of grilled chicken. Make chili from a mix of beans.
Have breakfast for dinner! Eggs are great any time of the day; get creative with them. Try frittatas, egg burritos, omelets, stratas, or soufflés. The options are limitless.