Balanced Vegetarian Diet:
How Do We Do It?
In honor of International Vegetarian Day, Ronit Giladi, Dietitian of Strauss Dairies, describes various types of vegetarian practices and provides tips and nutritional alternatives for those who chose a vegetarian lifestyle.
Vegetarians and vegans
Vegetarians refrain from eating meat (chicken, turkey, beef, etc.) often for ideological reasons, but also from the belief that this is the healthiest option available to them. This definition, however, incorporates several kinds of vegetarians: Those who include eggs and dairy products in their daily diet and those who do not, those who eat fish and those who exclude them.
Vegans, on the other hand, refrain from eating meat, fish, eggs and dairy products altogether. Some are careful to cook most of their food, while others advocate eating food in its most natural form. If you have decided to become a vegetarian, it is important to define your group and category, and tailor your diet and alternatives sources accordingly, so as to supplement all the nutritional needs of your body.
Vegetarian lifestyle – where do we find alternative sources?
A vegetarian diet can become a regular, healthy way of life, because it provides you with all major nutrients. You may embrace it for a long time without any limitation.
Clearly, there are significant nutritional benefits to consuming plenty of vegetables and fruits which are major foundations of the vegetarian diet. However, all health benefits can disappear once the diet starts to be poorly controlled.
First, it is important that people who embrace a vegetarian diet ask their doctor for referrals to the following tests: blood count and vitamin B12 level. It is then advisable to show the results to a clinical dietician, who will consider recommending essential nutritional supplements, if necessary, and help build a balanced diet that contains all major nutrients, minerals and vitamins essential to the body.
I listed these essential vitamins and minerals, and, of course, their alternative sources for vegetarians:
Vitamin B12 – Found mainly in meat is essential for the production of red blood cells, nervous system function, and growth and development in children. B12 deficiency may cause nerve damage and anemia. Note that some vegetarians have higher levels of vitamin B12 than people who feed on meat, simply because their body absorbs this vitamin better.
Sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians: eggs and dairy products.
Iron – Iron levels are lower in a vegetarian diet because of substances called Phytates that inhibit its absorption (found in tea, coffee, spinach, fiber-rich foods, legumes, nuts and seeds). Iron deficiency may cause concentration, memory and learning disorders, and even anemia in some difficult cases.
Iron sources for vegetarians: whole grains, whole wheat flour, green leafy vegetables, legumes, and some dried fruit.
Zinc – A mineral involved in various bodily activities such as growth, wound healing, hormonal activity, skin health, strengthened immune system and resistance to infection. Zinc deficiency may impair the immune system and sense of taste, and cause skin problems, hair loss, diarrhea, fatigue and inhibited growth.
Sources of zinc for vegetarians: legumes, yeasts, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
Calcium – The most common mineral in the body, is mostly concentrated in the bones and teeth. Calcium deficiency may cause Osteomalacia (softening of the bones) and at an older age Osteoporosis (bone thinning).
Calcium sources for vegetarians: milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, tofu, dried fruit and canned fish.
Be careful not to consume only fruits & vegetables and grains & seeds, while giving up your protein intake which is a building block of the body. It is recommended to consume legumes, eggs, fish and dairy products as well.
Soy beans belong to the legumes family, but also contain a large amount of protein. Tampa is a kind of “meat” made out of cooked soy beans which can be fried, baked and cooked. Miso is a thick paste prepared from soy beans fermented with grains (rice or barley), water and salt.
Eggs contain vitamin B12. Egg protein is a complete protein, and you can eat one egg every day, unless medically prohibited.
Milk and yogurt are an excellent source of protein, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Items such as skim milk or calcium-fortified yogurt, and cheese with up to 5% fat are good sources.
To better absorb minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron, you should consume them in small amounts throughout the day, combined with vitamin C foods such as red pepper, citrus, lemon in a salad and green leafy vegetables.