I recently came across this article I wrote for VHA Rehab Solutions, and decided to share it with all of you. It provides basic information about vegetarian diets, and what nutrients we need to focus on the most, as it may be challenging incorporating them in our everyday eating habits. So here we go…
Becoming a vegetarian is a choice many make due to religion, health and/or ethical concerns. A well-planned vegetarian diet can meet your nutrition requirements; the key is to be aware of your needs and to follow Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating when planning meals and snacks. Vegetarian diets are generally lower in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol than non-vegetarian diets. Plant based foods are full of nutrients such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough nutrients to meet your needs, talk to a dietitian who can help you plan a diet that is right for you.
Vegetarian diets vary, though some common ones are: 1) lacto-ovo: includes eggs and dairy products in addition to plant based foods; 2) ovo: includes eggs but not dairy products, 3) lacto: includes dairy but no eggs, and 4) vegan: only plant based foods consumed. Regardless of type, there are some nutrients that are harder to get in a vegetarian diet, so pay close attention to your intake of the following:
- Protein – needed for building and repairing of body tissues; found in meats, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds, tofu and legumes.
- Iron – needed for transporting oxygen in your body; found in meat, eggs, fortified grain products, legumes, leafy green vegetables and nuts and seeds.
- Calcium – important for strong bones and teeth; found in milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products, fortified soy, almond or rice milk, calcium fortified orange juice, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and green leafy vegetables.
- Vitamin D – necessary for strong bones, and helping with calcium absorption; found in milk, eggs, and soy almond and rice beverages fortified with vitamin D.
- Vitamin B12 – important in formation of red blood cells and maintenance of a healthy nervous system; found in milk products, eggs, soy, rice and almond milks fortified with vitamin B12, and nutritional yeast with vitamin B12.
- Zinc – plays a crucial role in growth and cell division and is required for protein and DNA synthesis; found in dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, tofu.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – play a role in brain function and normal growth and development, and are considered essential as our bodies cannot produce them; found in fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, tofu, algae, wheat germ, flax, canola or soybean oil.
Tips for incorporating variety of foods in a vegetarian diet:
- Look for products that are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12
- Add nuts and seeds to salads, stews and soups to increase your protein intake
- Find new and exciting recipes to avoid eating the same foods every week
- Some quick meal ideas include spaghetti with marinara sauce, bean burritos or a cheese sandwich
- Aim for variety, it can be as easy as changing a side dish of your favourite entrée
- Try new foods, experiment with new grains such as quinoa, couscous, barley and bulgur
By eating a variety of foods and following Canada’s Food Guide, you will ensure you get an adequate intake of all nutrients needed for good nutrition.