The Simple Truth About Vegetarian Nutrition

kale and beansWhen it comes to ideas about vegetarian diets, people seem to fall into one of two camps. One group believes that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet on the planet, while the other group will warn about all of the important nutrients that vegetarians are not consuming. (I was once warned that I was not getting enough vitamins in my diet because I don’t eat meat; clearly there are people who do not know where to turn for which nutrients!)

The point is that a vegetarian diet, like any other diet, must be planned well. There are certainly nutrients that vegetarians need to pay extra attention to because they are not easily obtained from plant-based foods. To be more specific, vegans (those who do not eat animal products of any kind), not vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, may be at risk. But the best things in life are not easy, so let’s take a closer look at some potential pitfalls to avoid when considering vegetarian nutrition.

Calcium

Most people think of dairy products as the best sources of calcium, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium for vegans. Dark leafy greens (including broccoli), tofu that is processed with calcium sulfate, and other fortified vegan foods, such as soy milk, are examples. There is also calcium in blackstrap molasses and almonds. One word of caution, though, if you rely on greens for calcium: a compound known as oxalic acid, which is present in some veggies, can interfere with calcium absorption. Spinach, rhubarb, and chard contain a lot of oxalic acid, so rely on greens like broccoli and collards for calcium instead.

Iron

Iron is perhaps the mineral most associated with meat. But vegans can find good sources of iron in beans and dark leafy greens. (Are you getting the idea that those dark leafy greens are awesome?)

There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron is the iron that we get from plant sources, and while it’s not absorbed as easily as heme iron, the truth is that iron deficiency anemia is no more common in vegans than it is in carnivores. One trick of the trade is to include foods rich in vitamin C with your beans and greens because vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. There are even some foods that are rich in both iron and vitamin C, such as broccoli and bok choy. Or try some vitamin C-rich tomato sauce with your beans. (Here’s a great recipe.)

Protein 

The simple fact is that most meat-eaters consume a lot more protein than they need. Maybe this is why they’re so concerned that vegetarians don’t get enough. Don’t get me wrong; protein is important. If you’re a vegan, you’ll need to be sure to combine foods correctly because there are few plant foods that are complete sources of protein (“complete” proteins contain all of the essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein). Soy and quinoa are among the few complete plant-based proteins, but there are other options as well. Combine rice with beans or nut butters with whole grain bread and you’ll have all of the essential amino acids in one place! For most vegans, eating a variety of nuts, seeds and legumes is sufficient for meeting protein needs.

So if you’re concerned that you don’t know enough about vegetarian nutrition to be healthy, start here. Then continue to read and learn more. You’ll probably come to a simple conclusion before long; if planned well, it is very hard to deny that the benefits of vegetarian nutrition far outweigh those of any other kind of diet!

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Maria Kuzmiak, M.A. is a health and well-being writer with a background in nutrition, psychology and education and a passion for yoga. She has written hundreds of articles, blogs and newsletters for clients in health-related fields, particularly those specializing in yoga, natural medicine, nutrition, and spiritual health and healing. Maria has also worked as a nutritionist, teacher and technical editor. Learn more about her writing at www.wellbeingwriter.net.

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