Alternatively Speaking: Exploring vegetarianism

Alternative medicine expert Natalie Marx answers your questions: How does being a vegetarian physically change you?

Alternatively Speaking - Natalie Marx (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alternatively Speaking - Natalie Marx
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The number of vegetarians worldwide today is unknown, however since the 1980s, interest in vegetarianism has risen dramatically. My readers have been increasingly more interested to find out more sound information about its pros and cons.
Many aspiring vegetarians must thoroughly relearn basic skills such as routine grocery shopping and food preparation. This process can be difficult to sustain, especially in contexts where meat-eaters are the majority and vegetarians the minority.
Most vegetarians want to know they are still maintaining a healthy and adequate diet. Below are some of the more common questions I have received concerning vegetarianism.
Q. Dear Natalie, please can you tell me which vitamins and nutrients I need to eat since I am a vegetarian and I want to make sure I have a proper diet.
A. There are certain nutrients which may need special attention when accounting for dietary needs as a vegetarian. Riboflavin is a water-soluble vitamin which should be consumed on a regular basis, preferably every day. We need riboflavin for our body to grow, to produce red blood cells and to assist in releasing the energy from the carbohydrates we eat. Since liver, red meat and dairy products are the best dietary sources of riboflavin, as vegetarians we need to find it in other sources. It can also be found in leafy green vegetables and fortified breads and cereals. The Institute of Medicine (Food and Nutrition Board) recommends males aged 14 and older consume 1.3 milligrams per day of riboflavin and females aged 14 and up should consume 1.0 to 1.1 mg/day.
Vitamin B12 is also important for our metabolism, as it helps to form red blood cells and assists in the maintenance of our central nervous system. Since Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal sources, vegetarians need supplementation to their diet. It is recommended for males and females age 14 and older to consume 2.4 micrograms a day of vitamin B12.
It's important for our bodies to have enough Vitamin D to absorb calcium and to regulate the levels of calcium and phosphorus in our blood. Other than exposure to enough sunlight, Vitamin D is available in fortified milk, egg yolks and liver. Since Vitamin D can be difficult to find in food sources, I recommend males and females ages 14 to 50 to consume 5 mcg/day of Vitamin D, adults ages 51 to 70 to consume 10 mcg/day and adults over age 70 to consume 15 mcg/day (in supplement form).
Finally, in addition to vitamins, as a vegetarian it is important to watch your intake of minerals. Vegetarians often have difficulty consuming adequate levels of iron since animal sources of iron are more easily absorbed by the human body than plant sources. Zinc is also more easily absorbed by the body from animal sources than plant sources. In this case I recommend cheese as an option for zinc for less strict vegetarians, otherwise a zinc supplement is sufficient.
Q. Dear Natalie, I have read conflicting evidence regarding the benefits of vegetarianism. How does being a vegetarian physically change you?
A. A well-planned vegetarian diet does not harm your body and health, but rather can bring about positive physical changes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009) found that vegetarians had a bone mineral density of about 4 percent lower than that of non-vegetarians. This however is not the case with a sufficient calcium intake. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians experience bone fractures at about the same rates. In support of this, a 2008 study in Public Health Nutrition suggests that a vegetarian diet rich in plant foods and protein is actually the most protective of bone health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proves that vegetarians have 32 percent less mortality than non-vegetarians from coronary heart disease.
Consumption of a vegetarian diet also protects against gallbladder disease, especially gallstones. A study cited in the Alternative Medicine Review (2009) shows that non-vegetarian women had a 25 percent incidence of gallbladder disease, while vegetarian women had a 12 percent incidence.
Lastly, according to a 2011 publication of Cancer Management Research, a vegetarian diet may indeed reduce overall cancer risk by 10 to 12 percent. Plant foods contain cancer-protective substances such as phytochemicals and fiber that account for some of this physical change. Overconsumption of animal flesh consumption, especially of red and processed meats, is linked with heightened risk of numerous cancers.
Q. Dear Natalie, since deciding to be a vegetarian I am unsure how to supplement my diet. Can you suggest any natural proteins I can eat?
A. Protein is indeed found in many different foods and vegetarians can adequately meet their protein needs by eating a variety of plant foods. The human body needs protein to maintain and grow new cells (adult men and women need 56g and 46g of protein a day respectively).
Try to include soy products as a complete protein. Soy provides the body with all of the essential amino acids and is in-fact the only plant-based complete protein. It is also an excellent source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Just 1 cup serving of cooked soybeans provides 29g of protein. Tofu provides 11g of protein in a 4 oz. serving. Commercial soy milk contains 7g of protein in an 8 oz. serving.
Legumes do not provide all of the essential amino acids; however, people following a plant-based diet can certainly meet amino acid needs by eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day. Try to include a 1/2 cup serving of lentils which provides 9g of protein, a 1/2 cup serving of kidney beans and black beans which provides 7g of protein and 1/2 cup serving of garbanzo beans which provides 6g of protein. Vegetables are also an excellent source of plant protein.
One cup of cooked spinach provides 5g of protein and 1 cup of cooked broccoli contains 4g of protein. Although an incomplete source of protein, nuts and seeds do act as a source of protein. A 1/4 cup serving of almonds provides 8g of protein, 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds provides 6g of protein and 1/4 cup of cashews provides 5g of protein.
Finally, there are many grains which contain a number of the essential amino acids. Just one cup of quinoa contains 9g of protein and two slices of whole wheat bread contains 5g of protein.
This column is brought to you as general information only and unless stated otherwise is not medical advice nor is it based on medical experiments. This column is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. For more information about specific problems, please contact a doctor.
To book a free 15 minute consultation with Natalie, please email [email protected]. She will advise which treatment is best for your individual needs; Reflexology, Homeopathy, Massage or Flower Remedies including nutritional advice. There is no obligation to book a treatment following the free consultation.