4 must-dos for vegetarians

Going meatless the right way means more than eating your greens

We’ve written on the benefits of eating plant-based foods like the prevention of heart disease and diabetes, and improving brain function. If you’re vegetarian, you already know the importance of getting enough protein (you probably are). You also need to prioritize your intake of iron, calcium, certain vitamins and zinc to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Here are 4 considerations to keep in mind when planning your meals.

  1. Find the right supplements and fortified foods to get enough vitamin B12, Omega-3 and calcium

Studies have shown that vegetarians are 18 percent more likely to report depression and 28 percent more likely to suffer panic attacks and anxiety than meat eaters. While the correlation is not irrefutable, researchers attribute the higher propensity of mental health issues with low intake of the B vitamins – specifically vitamin B12, which is only sourced through meat products.  This deficiency can also lead to cracked lips, neurological problems and anemia.

If you eat dairy and eggs – you will get all the vitamin B you need. But if all animal products are avoided, you need to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish like mackerel, anchovies, sardines, salmon and herring, in nuts such as walnuts, in seeds such as flaxseeds, or a supplement. But because the conversion rate of the type of Omega-3 fatty acids in nuts and seeds into the active form is very slow – Omega-3 supplements can be a good substitute as well.

Calcium is another nutrient that can be missing from a vegetarian’s diet.

“Another way to enhance nutrition is to choose foods that are fortified, such as fortified soy beverage. It has the same amount of calcium added per serving as naturally occurring in cow’s milk,” says Vandana Gujadhur, a registered dietitian at Medcan.

  1. Eat to enhance energy: Know which food combinations help with iron absorption

While vegetarians may pile their plates full of beans and pulses, their absorption of iron is not as strong as meat eaters. The result may be fatigue, breathlessness and other signs of iron deficiency. That’s because the iron in meat is more easily absorbed than plant-based iron (known as non-heme iron).

Non-heme iron absorption is enhanced by vitamin C and other acids from fruits and vegetables (such as citrus fruits, kiwi, guava, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, potatoes).

Ask your registered dietitian for guidance. Understanding which food combinations to create (and avoid) can help improve the efficiency of your meals.  Here are some high iron combinations recommended by Gujadhur:

  • Spinach salad with orange slices and sliced bell peppers
  • Bean burrito with tomato-loaded salsa
  • Oatmeal with strawberries
  • Tofu with a fresh broccoli salad
  • Spinach, broccoli and quinoa soup
  • Lentil and spinach stew
  • Lemon juice as part of a salad dressing

Cooking with cast-iron cookware can increase the amount of iron in foods.

Foods to avoid alongside iron-rich meals:

  • Coffee and tea: polyphenol in the drinks can reduce iron absorption
  • Eggs: the protein phosvitin can prevent the body from absorbing up to 28% of iron from foods
  • Dairy products or a calcium supplement can inhibit absorption of iron from a iron-rich meal if ingested at the same time
  1. If you’re at a “special life event”, accommodate accordingly

“New vegetarians anticipating a specific life event such as a pregnancy or training for a marathon may need to focus on specific nutrients. Speaking to a registered dietitian becomes really important to identify those specific nutrients,” says Gujadhur.

For example, if you start a new strength training regimen, your protein intake should meet the new requirements.

  1. Ensure your immune system is supported with enough zinc

Even those vegetarians not going through a new stage can be unknowingly nutritionally deficient. For example, while most vegetarians are not zinc deficient, it is something to keep in mind. Beef and lamb are the two highest sources of zinc, with mussels, oysters and other seafood being high in zinc. Meatless sources of zinc include wheat germ, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.  If you are not eating any of these products, your immunity could be at risk. Gujadhur says zinc absorption can be increased by toasting nuts and seeds. She advises to eat your nuts and seeds roasted instead of raw.

For more vegetarian meal inspiration, check out these bestselling vegetarian cookbooks:

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