There is no single definition of what comprises a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism is an umbrella term that describes the abstinence from animal products in various degrees. At one end of the spectrum is the vegan diet, which is strictly plant-based. This orientation stems from a broader philosophy of living without reliance on animals or products derived from animals, and may exclude the use of such commodities as honey, gelatin, fur, leather and silk. Other classifications of vegetarianism include lacto-vegetarians, who supplement a plant-based diet with dairy products, as well as lacto-ovo vegetarians, who also include eggs. Lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarians extend their diet to include fish and shellfish. A newer term, flexitarian, has been adopted by those who occasionally abstain from meat, poultry and fish.
The health benefits of a meatless or meat-reduced diet have been extensively documented. A well planned vegetarian diet translates into a lower than average intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, and a generous intake of dietary fibre, important micronutrients (including magnesium and folate), as well as powerful phytochemicals and antioxidants. This unique combination of what’s lacking and what’s abundant gives plant-based diets their health-protective potential.
Some notable possible benefits:
Lower risk of obesity. Several studies have documented a lower body mass index (BMI) in vegetarian groups compared to meat-eating groups that are similar in every other demographic. Factors that may explain the lower BMI among vegetarians include differences in macronutrient intake (lower protein, fat and animal fat intake), higher fibre consumption, less alcohol intake, and greater consumption of vegetables.
Protection from heart disease. An analysis of five large-scale studies involving more than 76,000 subjects concluded that death from ischemic heart disease (characterized by reduced blood flow to the heart) was 31% lower among vegetarian men compared with non-vegetarian men and 20% lower among vegetarian women compared with non-vegetarian women. The protective effect on the heart seems to hold true in spite of body mass index and is attributed to the lower blood cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure of non-meat eaters. Blood pressure and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels can be influenced by dietary factors such as intake of animal (saturated) fat, soluble fibre, soy protein and micronutrients such as potassium, magnesium and folate.
Reduced risk of diabetes. Some studies show that plant-based diets offer protection from developing type 2 diabetes. This may be due to vegetarians’ lower BMI and higher intake of soluble fibre, both of which enhance insulin sensitivity.
Lower rates of cancer. Compared with the general population, vegetarians have a lower incidence of several types of cancer. One study showed that even when demographic variables and smoking status were not influences, meat consumers had a 54% higher incidence of prostate cancer, and an 88% higher risk of colorectal cancer.
Research suggests other possible health benefits from diets low or absent in meat, including lower rates of kidney disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, gallstones and dementia.
Though a well planned vegetarian diet is undeniably healthy, a poorly planned one can lead to an inadequate intake of key vitamins and minerals, possibly causing nutritional deficiencies and other health complications. As more types of foods are omitted (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy), more thought and planning are required to ensure an optimal intake of essential nutrients. For example:
The iron in plant foods is poorly absorbed by the body compared to the iron found in meat. To compensate, combine plant-based iron-rich foods (legumes, tofu, fortified cereals, leafy dark green vegetables) with a source of vitamin C (tomatoes, tomato sauce, strawberries, bell peppers, parsley, broccoli, citrus fruits). Using iron cookware to simmer soups, stews and sauces also increases their iron content.
Plant proteins (beans, nuts, soy) are not considered nutritionally complete because, unlike meat, they are lacking various essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein molecules. To ensure that you are receiving a full complement of amino acids, be sure to consume several servings of whole grains (such as whole wheat, barley, brown rice, quinoa and oats) every day.
Diets lacking dairy products may provide inadequate calcium and vitamin D, the bone-building heavyweights. Alternatives to cow’s milk include fortified soy, rice and almond beverages (look for products that provide 30% of the daily recommended intake of calcium per 250 mL serving, as well as fortification with vitamin D3). Other non-animal derived sources of calcium include almonds, tofu made with calcium, fortified orange juice, legumes and dark leafy greens such as kale, collards and broccoli. Speak to your doctor or dietitian about taking supplemental vitamin D, especially during the winter months.
Those whose diets exclude dairy as well as meat should consider taking supplemental
vitamin B12, a nutrient that is found exclusively in foods of animal origin. Fortified soymilk and cereals as well as nutritional yeast can also provide a boost.
Diets that exclude fish may provide an inadequate supply of essential fatty acids, particularly the heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fats. Aim to eat ground flaxseed, flax oil, walnuts, canola oil and omega-3 enriched products (juice, dairy products, eggs).
A word to parents: A growing number of adolescents, especially females, are adopting vegetarian and vegan diets for the purpose of losing and controlling their weight, and to mask disordered eating patterns. If your teen is interested in switching to a vegetarian lifestyle, understand his or her motivations and enlist the help of your doctor or dietitian to make the switch in the healthiest way possible.
Get started by participating in “Meatless Mondays.” For just one day a week, skip the meat. Meatless Mondays is a movement that acknowledges the tremendous impact – on individual, global and environmental health – of cutting our meat consumption by only 15%.
Stock your pantry and fridge shelves with vegetarian proteins – canned or dried beans, lentils and chickpeas; tofu; nuts and nut butters; soymilk. If your diet permits dairy products, low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt as well as fat-reduced cheese, are excellent protein sources. If your diet permits fish, canned tuna (look for the “light” or skipjack variety) or canned wild salmon are good pantry staples.
A simple meal-building strategy is to plan your meals around a protein source (such as eggs, legumes, tofu); complement with a whole grain (such as whole wheat couscous, quinoa, brown rice, wheat berries, millet) and add an array of colourful fruits and vegetables. Accessorize your meal with some heart-healthy fat – nuts and nut butters, olives and olive oil, avocado, ground flaxseed and flax oil.
Buy a great vegetarian cookbook (see recommended resources below) for inspiration, and plan your meals ahead. Consult with a Registered Dietitian (www.dietitians.ca) to discuss creating a balanced vegetarian diet suited to your health concerns.
Some simple ideas to inspire your next vegetarian meal…
Lunch Box Grain Salad
Mix a cooked grain (such as barley, quinoa or whole wheat couscous) with a legume (try canned lentils or chickpeas, rinsed and drained). Add crumbled feta cheese and diced veggies: try bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumber. Dress with a simple vinaigrette made from olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. If dairy is omitted, the feta can be substituted with toasted walnuts for an extra hit of protein and heart-healthy fat.
Use omega-3 eggs and your favourite variety of veggies, sliced then sautéed in olive oil (try zucchini, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes). Add freshly grated parmesan cheese. Serve with a garden salad and a slice of whole grain bread.
In olive oil, sauté grated zucchini and minced garlic. Add to hot cooked whole wheat pasta (choose a small pasta shape like orzo or stellini), along with freshly grated parmesan cheese and reserved pasta water to moisten. Stir in canned chickpeas that have been rinsed and drained.
Cut a block of firm tofu into small (½–1 inch) squares; pat dry with paper towel. Sauté tofu on medium-high heat in a wok with canola or grapeseed oil until golden brown on all sides; remove from pan. Add your favourite chopped vegetables (broccoli, onion, garlic, snow peas, sliced carrots, green peppers, mushrooms) to the wok and cook until tender-crisp. Season with fresh ginger, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes, to taste. Return the browned tofu to the pan to heat through. Serve over brown rice.
Vegetarian Resource Group
The Vegan Society
by Vesanto Melina RD and Brenda Davis RD
Raising Vegetarian Children
by Joanne Stepaniak, Vesanto Melina RD
Rebar Modern Food Cookbook
by Audrey Alsterburg and Wanda Urbanowicz
Marie Fortin, MEd, RD, a Registered Dietitian, runs Thrive Consulting, a busy nutrition consulting practice in Markham, where she coaches clients of all ages to better health and vitality. Learn more at www.mariefortin.com.