Going Veggie?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Better Off Meatless

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Oct. 9, 2001 -- Remember the days when only eccentrics chose to be vegetarians? Doctors warned them that they ran a serious risk of protein deprivation. Today, going veggie is more than a trend or a phase. It's a way of life. Even teenagers do it. Are vegetarians on to something? Are we better off meatless? Some of today's medical experts say that vegetarians can be as healthy as meat eaters, if not healthier.

Better Off Meatless?

You can find all the nutrients you need, including protein, in plants. And avoiding meat helps you avoid saturated fat, something most people could do without. One study found that women who eat meat daily have a 50% greater risk of developing heart disease than vegetarian women.

Protein isn't an issue for lacto-ovo vegetarians, who will eat milk and eggs. But vegans, who exclude all animal products, may have to take special care to include all the types of protein they need, as well as other vitamins and minerals. That's especially true for children, teenagers, and pregnant women.

Mixing for Protein

To get the right mix of the essential amino acids, it's important to eat some foods in combination: Beans, split peas, and lentils should be combined with grains, and beans should be combined with nuts. In the past, experts suggested pairing these ingredients in the same meal. While that may be the easiest way to do it, current research suggests that combinations need only be made in the same day.

Here are some examples of nutritionally balanced combinations:

  • black beans and rice
  • a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread
  • split pea soup with whole grain bread
  • lentil soup and cornbread
  • sunflower seeds and navy bean soup

The most common mistake vegetarians make is thinking they can depend solely on milk products to make up for what they're not getting from meat. While milk products are excellent sources of protein, they do not supply the needed iron, zinc and other minerals found in meat. Only two to three servings daily of cooked dried beans and peas can do that.

Galvanize Your Diet

Many people, especially women, teenagers, and children, fall short in their requirements for zinc even when they include zinc-rich meat in their diets. So vegetarians need to eat a variety of zinc-rich foods, such as lima beans, wheat germ, nuts, cooked dried beans and peas, and dark green, leafy vegetables every day. Whole grains are also a must, since they supply up to three times more zinc than refined or "enriched" breads and cereals.

Women and children are particularly likely to miss out on the iron they need, even when they eat red meat, which is one of the best sources of iron. To get the iron they need, vegetarians must eat several servings daily of iron-rich legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit.

Balancing Basics

Planning meals remains the same for lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat eaters, with the exception being the source of their two to three daily servings from the meat group. Lacto-ovo vegetarians should be sure to eat the right amount of cooked dried beans and peas, nuts, and seeds or eggs.

Like meat eaters, vegetarians should avoid filling up on sugars, oils and alcohol, which are high in calories and low in nutrients. And they should bake, broil, or steam rather than cook in oil.

Tips for Vegetarians

  • If you're a vegan, drink soymilk that is fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12. Plant foods simply don't have enough calcium. It would take nine cups of cooked chard (but only three cups of cow's milk) to meet the average person's daily calcium requirement.
  • Include at least one whole grain and two fruits or vegetables at every meal.
  • In salads, replace iceberg lettuce with leaf lettuce or spinach, and top with nuts, low-fat cheese, kidney beans, or winter pears.
  • Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals, since compounds called tannins in these beverages inhibit iron absorption by up to 75%. A little coffee or tea between meals is fine, though.
  • Even people eating a well-balanced diet can benefit from a daily moderate-dose multivitamin that supplies 100% of the recommended daily allowance for a broad range of vitamins and minerals.

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