It was high school biology class, and we were dissecting the liver of a squirrel.  One student revealed she was a vegetarian and did not agree to dissection and asked for a pass and the teacher asked if there were any other vegetarians in the class. It turned out she was the only one, but when I went home from school that day, I declared to my parents that I was becoming a vegetarian!

When I first stopped eating meat, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not know what nutrients I would be missing out on, did not know what products to healthfully replace meat with, and did not track macronutrients. I came up with this guide to help new vegetarians and long time vegetarians to get an idea of things to consider when you stop eating meat.

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Vegetarian versus Vegan and plant-based

Questions vegetarians often are asked: do you eat fish? Vegetarians in general do not eat meat, seafood or poultry, but some do include fish, eggs, or dairy products.  Vegans do not eat animal products – no dairy, no meat, no fish, no poultry. A plant based diet is what it sounds like – it focuses on eating plants but could include a variety of other foods.

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Is there a wrong way to eat vegetarian?

YES.  A grilled cheese, french fries and plate of fruit could be a vegetarian meal.  Fake meat foods such as hamburgers, hotdogs, and meat crumbles typically carry a long ingredient list with a base ingredient of soy, textured soy protein or vital wheat gluten.  Refined carbohydrates are also vegetarian and can be vegan, so a diet high in refined carbohydrates will increase insulin levels and can cause insulin resistance and diabetes.

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The problem with soy

Soy has received mixed reviews, both to be beneficial and to be harmful. Soy contains high concentrations of phytoestrogens, and can act as an estrogen in the body (1).  The main ingredient in soy that has been studied is the isoflavones, which have been found to have the potential to affect intracellular signaling (2).  Soy is also a mainly GMO crop, so always look for organic if you consume soy.

INTENTIONAL EATING IS A MUST WHEN VEGETARIAN

Vegetarians and vegans need to be intentional, and the focus should be around vegetables.  Without intentional eating, vegetarians can quickly become depleted in key nutrients.

the benefits of not eating meat

Those who do not eat meat typically consume less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables.  The China Study which is one of the largest comprehensive studies in human nutrition was conducted over a time period of 20 years, and found that animal protein could turn on cancer cells, lead to development of diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disease, among other issues. The findings in this study concluded that a plant based diet will drastically reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Typical nutrient deficiencies in vegetarians

Consequently, many experts hold that humans were meant to consume meat and need the nutrients from it, and still other suggest that even our body type determines whether or not we can sustain a vegetarian lifestyle.  Several key nutrients could be deficient in vegetarians or vegans.  With intentional eating and supplementing, vegetarians can monitor intake and make sure they are getting what they need.  Below are several key nutrients of which non-meat eaters should take note.

Protein

Where do you get your protein?” is the top question non-meat eaters are asked, and yes, protein is important! The amino acids are the building blocks of the cells in our bodies.  Finding good clean protein sources to meet the minimum requirements can be a struggle in a vegetarian diet. For vegetarians, eggs are a great source of protein, and for both vegans and vegetarians, nuts, beans, some grains and seeds, and organic tempeh are the cleanest sources of protein. Most vegetarians will need to be very intentional to meet protein needs.

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Photo Credit: EatingWell
Iron.

It is possible to get enough iron, but many vegetarians are iron-deficient due to the absorption. Iron in meat, or heme iron, is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. Non heme iron absorption can be disrupted by phytates, polyphenols such as coffee, calcium, ascorbic acid, and muscle tissue and enhanced by Vitamin C and Vitamin A consumption within the same meal (3).  Iron deficiency causes anemia which can lead to overall fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness and insomnia, among other issues.  When the body does not have enough iron, it cannot make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells (5).  Many vegetarians will supplement with a chelated iron source or raw iron. 

Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are sourced from fish and eggs, so diets excluding these will be low in EPA and DHA. While our body can convert the ALA in plant foods such as flaxseed oil and walnuts to EPA and DHA, it does not do so efficiently and has a very low conversion rate (4). For this reason, non meat eaters should consider an Omega-3 supplement. An omega 3 deficiency is linked with depression, anxiety, and inflammation (5,6).

 

Vitamin B12.

Strict vegans will not have any sources of B12 in their diet, and need to supplement with this vitamin. Vitamin B12 is involved in nerves and blood cells and helps to make DNA (7). Those with a B12 deficiency can have similar symptoms to anemia, but also have issues with vision. Children over 14 should aim for 2.4mcg daily or take a weekly supplement of a larger dose.

Thus, if your  child comes home one day and tells you he or she is no longer eating meat, use this as a guide to help plan a vegetarian and nutrient rich diet.  Knowing what to eat and what to avoid, and what key nutrients to focus on is key to a healthy lasting vegetarian diet.

BEFORE YOU STOP EATING MEAT….

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Avoid fake meat products. Most of these are made with GMO soy, and filler additives that you do not want to be consuming under any circumstances.
  3. Know where to get your protein. This will be the first and most popular question that you will be asked.
  4. Keep tabs on your iron intake.
  5. Supplement with Omega 3s.
  6. If you are vegan, supplement with B12.

 

Sources

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5793271/

(2) http://journal.waocp.org/?sid=Entrez:PubMed&id=pmid:25227781&key=2014.15.17.7001

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20200263

(4) https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/features/iron-supplements#1

(5) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159111004685?via%3Dihub

(6) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X03000324

(7) https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/

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