“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan
Whether you’re vegan (no meat, eggs, dairy), vegetarian, pescatarian, semi-vegetarian or flexitarian (small amounts of meat every once in awhile), your way of eating affects your way of life. Not only are you decreasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and obesity, you are impacting the environment. It takes a WHOLE LOT of pesticide, fuel, and water for meat production, and that generates greenhouse gases, which contaminate our direct environment. This is how your eating choices affect you: if your four-person family eats vegan for just one day a week (Meatless Mondays, anyone?), that’s equivalent to taking your car off the road for 5 weeks!
Ever since we’ve been more flexitarian/semi-vegetarian in our eating ways, we now get the question, “Well, how do you get your protein and calcium?” This has been quite easy for us (being a Registered Dietitian and knowing about food and nutrition doesn’t hurt either). Here are a few nutrients of concern for those eating a more plant-based diet and how to fill in the gaps:
Meat is normally what people think of when the word “protein” is mentioned. Protein serves as the structural component of your cells and muscles, repairs skin and muscles, and has many other functions in the body. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids – nonessential (your body makes them) and essential (you need to eat them). Meat, eggs, and dairy are generally considered “complete” proteins, with all of the amino acids needed by the body.
But most people don’t know that protein is also abundant in beans and legumes, tofu and soy products, nut/seeds and nut butters, whole grains, and some vegetables. Though many plant foods contain incomplete proteins, simple combinations of plant-based foods (such as beans and rice, or hummus and pita) provide all of the amino acids needed. You don’t have to consume these foods in one meal; it can be throughout the day. There are also some vegetarian sources of complete proteins, like quinoa, soy products, and buckwheat.
Plant-based diet eaters can easily meet their protein recommendations with a VARIETY of plant-based foods to adequately consume all of the essential amino acids needed. You just need to explore new fun recipes and food options!
Calcium is not just found in dairy products. You can find it in fortified non-dairy milks (check the nutrition label, and shake the carton before you pour out the milk because the calcium settles on the bottom), fortified orange juice, dark leafy greens, and calcium-set tofu and tempeh. Recommendations are at least two servings of fortified milk/orange juice/tofu and one serving of dark green leafy vegetables a day. Oxalates and phytates in certain dark green leafies may interfere with absorption of calcium, but the calcium in kale is more absorbable than the calcium in broccoli, for example. You may need a calcium supplement if you don’t consume enough of these foods.
Vitamin D is found in some animal products, like salmon, eggs, and milk, but you can also absorb Vitamin D through sunlight. About ten minutes a day should be sufficient, according to Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. . When you choose plant-based milks or orange juice, buy the ones fortified with Vitamin D. Mushrooms exposed to sunlight also generate Vitamin D.
This can be hard to get because it’s only found in animal products. You have to look for fortified products, such as soymilk and cereal. However, you can also make lots of things out of nutritional yeast, which is full of Vitamin B12, and imparts a “cheesy” flavor when used for vegan mac ‘n cheese or pesto. I make an awesome pesto pasta with it (which my hubby and daughter scarf down), courtesy of Isa Chandra. If you’re vegan, you may consider a Vitamin B12 supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish (EPA and DHA) and some plant products, such as walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and canola oil. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are found in marine life and fish, while alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plants. ALA will, to a small extent, convert to EPA and DHA in the body. Vegetarians and vegans who do not consume any fish and cannot take fish oil supplements can look for supplements with microalgae which does have DHA and EPA. Generally, if you’re consuming a plant-based diet, try to consume rich sources of monounsaturated fats and alpha-linolenic fatty acids to ensure a good fatty acid balance.
Variety is key with any diet. Just as you’ll get nutrient deficiencies surviving on chicken nuggets alone, you’ll get some type of deficiency if you just depend on a few vegetarian products. Do your research before embarking on a more plant-based journey, and I assure you, you’ll be totally satisfied with the variety of food out there!
Environmental Working Group
Article in Today’s Dietitian “Vegetarian’s Challenge: Optimizing Essential Fatty Acid Status,” by Brenda David, RD. Feb 2010.