How To Go Meatless Without Jeopardizing Your Health

Edwina Clark, MS, RD, APD (Aus)

After years of battling the hippie stereotype, plant-based eating is breaking free and going mainstream. ‘Eat the rainbow’, ‘color your plate’ and ‘5 a day’ are just a few of the pro-plant phrases that have encouraged us to pack our plates with veggies, fruit, nuts, legumes and seeds.

Beyond the jingles, plant-based eating is backed by a growing body of research. Plant-rich diets appear to offer protection against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, among other things [1].

Plant-based eating undeniably comes with a slew of benefits — however, going meatless altogether comes with a few additional nutrition considerations. Here are the nutrients you need to think about to go vegetarian or vegan safely:

Protein:

The basics: Protein is the building block of tissues, helps you feel full, and buffers against muscle wasting. There are two types of protein: those that your body can synthesize on it’s own (known as non-essential amino acids), and those that it cannot (essential amino acids).

Reason for concern: Many plant proteins are incomplete — that is, they are missing essential amino acids that your body cannot manufacture. On top of that, plant protein is bound-up by phytates and generally less available than protein from animal sources.

Getting enough: Eat a good source of plant-protein at every meal and snack, and incorporate a variety of plant-proteins throughout the week to get sufficient protein. Good plant-protein choices include tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts and legumes. For those wandering the vegetarian path, don’t forget about eggs and low-fat dairy products as well. These vegetarian-friendly proteins are highly bioavailable.

Vitamin B12:

The basics: Vitamin B12 plays an important role in cell division and metabolism. B12 deficiency can result in permanent nervous system damage, and is frequently seen in long-term vegetarians/vegans.

Reason for concern: There are very few naturally-occurring plant-based sources of Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products and fortified foods such as cereals, milk and nutritional yeast.

Getting enough: Incorporate a variety of B12-fortified products, as well as a multi-vitamin, to get sufficient B12 on a vegetarian/vegan diet. Eating nori — the green wrapping around sushi — can also help boost B12 intake. Vitamin B12 absorption decreases with age so older adults need more than younger folks.

Calcium:

The basics: Calcium is known for being a bone-builder but it’s involved in much more than that. Calcium regulates muscle contractions (including heartbeat), nerve impulses and hormone secretion.

Reason for concern: Although calcium found in cruciferous veggies such as cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli is fairly well absorbed, the calcium content of these foods is significantly lower than cow’s milk. In addition, some veggies such as spinach and chard, are loaded with oxalates which reduce calcium availability.

Getting enough: Your best bet for getting enough calcium is to consume 1–2 servings of low-fat dairy or soy milk (for the vegans), and cruciferous veggies daily. Non-dairy milks like soy and almond milk, and some tofu products are fortified with calcium and can bump-up calcium intake on a plant-based diet.

Iron:

The basics: Iron picks up oxygen in the bloodstream and strengthens immunity. Iron is particularly important nutrient for women of childbearing age who lose iron through menses every month.

Reason for concern: Iron found in plant-based food such as white beans, lentils, spinach and kidney beans is bound-up by phytates and poorly absorbed by the body.

Getting enough: Aim to consume a good source of iron (with vitamin C-containing foods) at every meal. Vitamin C rich foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, and peppers, significantly improve iron absorption, and can help you meet your need on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Zinc:

The basics: Zinc is important for wound healing, remedying diarrhea, vision and taste.

Reason for concern: Legumes, nuts and seeds and good source of zinc but much like iron, zinc from plant sources is poorly absorbed.

Getting enough: Incorporate legumes, nuts and seeds on a daily basis, and experiment with sprouted bread to get adequate zinc. Sprouting or fermenting grains, can improve zinc bioavailability and increase zinc intake on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Omega-3s:

The basics: Last but not least, omega-3 fats deserve a mention. These fantastic fats are renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties and have been linked to heart health, joint health and brain function.

Reason for concern: While chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts contain omega-3s, the type of omega-3 fat they contain (known as ALA) is less potent than that found in fatty fish and seafood (EPA + DHA).

Getting enough: Good news! Some forms of algae produce EPA + DHA. If you’re going veg-o, add a algal EPA + DHA supplement to get your omega-3 fix.

Eating a plant-based diet has numerous benefits, but it’s important to put some thought into what goes in your mouth to avoid missing out on important nutrients. Rather than stocking up on highly processed meatless products, rely on beans, nuts, legumes, minimally processed soy products, whole grains and a wide array of fruits and veggies, as your meatless essentials. A good quality multivitamin can also help round out the edges. Plant-based eating can be flavorful, interesting and nutritionally complete with a little planning.

[1] Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Philip J Tuso, Mohamed H Ismail, Benjamin P Ha, Carole Bartolotto. Perm J. 2013 Spring; 17(2): 61–66.