Meatless diets need nutrient balance

The produce section may get the most attention as some people peruse the grocery aisles, but local nutritionists say dietary balance is still a must.

For some, it’s simply a matter of preference — not enjoying meat — but for others, like Emily Gill of Okotoks, the lifestyle choice was a moral decision.

She became a vegetarian at age 10, when her science class studied a unit on animal dissection.

“It made me consider what I felt morally regarding how we treat and use animals,” said Gill.

At 10-years-old, she relied on her parents for her meals, and they supported her choice from the beginning. Her mother took her to a nutritionist to learn about healthy meat alternatives as she moved toward a vegetarian diet.

“It was a very easy transition for, as I grew up in Asia where healthy, vegetarian food was always available,” said Gill.

She chose to become an ovo-lacto vegetarian, meaning she includes eggs and dairy in her diet as sources of protein. She also adds tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds to her meals to supplement protein sources in her diet. Her family adds chia or hemp seeds to almost every meal for extra nutritional value — they are rich in necessary Omega-3 fatty acids, fibre and essential amino acids.

“I don’t find I have to actively think about things like protein and iron throughout the day any more than I think about healthy eating in general,” said Gill.

Priddis-based nutritionist Erin Power, of eat.simple, said adding those elements to the diet is the key to succeeding in a healthy vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

“We are designed to eat everything from plants to animal proteins,” said Power. “Vegetarians and vegans may have made a moral choice, which is completely valid, but on the health side they need to ensure they have sufficient protein sources the body needs.”

A complete protein, found most often in meats, contains all the essential amino acids the human body needs, she said. A vegetarian can combine a number of different foods, like seeds and legumes, to get the same amino acids to create a manageable diet, said Power.

There are a number of non-essential amino acids that help the body function — such as the metabolism and enzyme booster, serine — which are only available in animal proteins, she said.

A vegetarian would have to use different supplements to ensure their diets includes those amino acids, she said.

“Another big one is vitamin B12,” said Power. “A lot of vegetarians and vegans are deficient in B12, which is something we get from animal proteins, and it’s important for brain function.”

The vitamin can be taken as a supplement in tablet form or administered by a shot, she said.

Omega-3 fatty acids also play an important role in health, she said, and are most often found in fish. For vegetarians, the most common source is flax and chia seeds, like the ones Gill has opted to include in her diet.

After 20 years of vegetarianism, Gill said her reasoning has now expanded from merely a moral standpoint to include concerns about health and the environment. Suplemen Fitnes

Despite the benefits she has experienced from her diet, Gill said she understands vegetarianism and veganism are not for everyone. She respects the decision to eat meat, and said she hopes others can respect her choice.

“I am questioned often about my dietary choices,” said Gill. “Especially living in Alberta, where the beef industry has such a strong presence.”

Although cattle country may pose a challenge to the vegetarian or vegan diet, she said eating out is rarely an issue as most establishments include options for those who abstain from meat or dairy.

The worst issue she’s encountered has been language barriers while traveling.

“I always learn the word for ‘vegetarian’ in the local language — both written and spoken,” said Gill. “But I haven’t always gotten the point across.”