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Going veg

(article, Marissa Lippert)

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Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, has stirred up conversation about factory farming, vegetarianism, and why we may want to think twice about serving up roast beef at the holiday table. 

A version of the article that follows was originally published at the Huffington Post, but it's straightforward information that certainly is worth repeating. And as Foer points out, if you’re not a vegetarian and you plan to eat meat this holiday season (that includes me), you can make a statement against factory farming by purchasing meat from locally raised animals. Find out more at Local Harvest.


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Following a vegetarian diet isn't brain surgery. But with the abundance of food-related information out there, it’s easy to get up caught up in over-analysis of healthy eating and good nutrition when you’re attempting to make a change in your diet. 

Whether you’re already a vegetarian or are a newcomer to the plant-based dietary practice — or you're just trying to eat less meat, poultry, fish, and seafood — you’ve likely contemplated how to get all your daily essential nutrients and what exactly those fundamental nutrients are. 

Here, then, is a quick run-down of what you need to know about nutrition when following a vegetarian diet. 

Disclaimer: The following points address a vegetarian diet, a plant-based diet that may also include diary products, eggs, and, in the case of pescetarians, some fish. But if you’re seeking guidelines for a vegan diet (strictly zero animal products), much of the following information still applies.    

Protein. Perhaps surprisingly, vegetarians have a range of protein options. Along with eggs and dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, there are beans and legumes; quinoa; nuts and nut butters; tofu, edamame, soy milk, soy yogurt, soy cheese, and tempeh (fermented soybeans); and seitan (protein from wheat gluten).  

Yes, it’s true that animal sources of protein are "complete proteins" — that is, they contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need. You can do just fine, however, with a varied vegetarian diet that incorporates protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. And keep in mind that soybeans (tofu, soy milk, etc.) and quinoa are both plant sources of complete protein. 

Incidentally, I’d recommend caution with the highly processed forms of vegetarian or soy protein. Your body tends to do best with foods that are fewest in ingredients and that are as close to the original source as possible. So if a veggie burger has more than a few ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize, leave it on the grocery shelf. 

Carbohydrates. Carbs play an important role in any diet, but their quality makes a difference when it comes to nutrient value. To ensure you’re getting a good variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, as well as a steady source of slow-burning energy, reach for complex carbohydrates and whole grains. 

Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike have a lengthy list of complex carbohydrates to choose from. Good picks include brown and wild rice; barley, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, and bulgur; whole-wheat couscous; whole-grain breads and cereals; oats; beans and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney, black and white beans); starchier vegetables like sweet potatoes and regular potatoes; winter squashes (butternut and acorn squash, pumpkin); and, of course, whole-wheat pasta, though I will say that I’m personally a sucker for really fantastic regular semolina pasta on occasion.   

Whole grains and complex carbs help prevent cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol, and improve digestion. They're also excellent sources of energy. 

Healthy fats. Another dietary staple, healthy fats help boost heart health and brain function, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, slow down the aging process, and fill us up fast to improve satiety. 

Seek out  mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids: avocadoes, heart-healthy oils (like olive, sunflower, grapeseed, and canola); walnuts and other nuts; seeds, including flaxseeds; and fatty fish (if you’re a pescetarian) like salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, and sardines.  

Think “balance” at meals.  If you’re looking for the greatest satisfaction and longer-lasting satiety, look no further than a well-balanced plate at mealtimes. Eating and providing our bodies with good-quality nourishment should be easy, not mind-boggling. 

You want some vegetables — filling, ideally, about half of your plate — along with some sort of healthful carbohydrate and a serving of a lean (vegetarian) protein source. Those three items form a triumvirate at the table to quell hunger and provide all your staple nutrients in one meal.  

Quality: Fresh food is king. Vegetarian or not, you’ll get the biggest bang for your nutritional buck with fresh, whole foods. As Michael Pollan says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” — even if it is “vegetarian.” Would she eat mashed potatoes that are made from flakes out of a box? Probably not. 

If weight loss is a goal, then why aren’t you losing? This may sound harsh, but if you’re seeking to shed a few extra pounds while following a vegetarian diet and the scale’s not budging, you’re likely just eating too much. A mountainous plate of pasta with plain marinara sauce does not a well-balanced vegetarian diet make.  

Just because you’ve cut meat out of your diet doesn’t necessarily mean the weight will fall off. Go back to balance and the triumvirate on your plate — and then aim to cut back on portion sizes by at least 15 to 25 percent. 

Watch for missing nutrients. Here’s the one potential, but easily avoidable, trouble spot with vegetarian diets: ensuring you’re consuming sufficient iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. 

Iron is best absorbed from animal sources, but there are plenty of good plant-based sources, including soybeans, lentils, spinach, quinoa, tofu, and Swiss chard. You get an additional boost in iron absorption when you eat good amounts of vitamin C, which is usually prevalent in a vegetarian diet rich with fruits and vegetables. A low intake of iron-rich foods can lead to anemia.

As for calcium, you’ll find it in soy, rice, and almond milks, soy yogurt, and cheese; tofu; edamame; black beans; dark leafy greens; calcium-fortified orange juice; and even almonds. These items should appear frequently in your diet to ensure you’re hitting calcium targets. 

Lastly, vitamin B12 is a little tricky because it’s primarily found in meat, dairy products, and eggs. B12, which is important to prevent anemia, is required to form red blood cells and maintain a healthy nervous system. If you’re a dairy and egg-eating vegetarian, you don’t have too much to worry about. Many vegetarian and vegan products are now fortified with B12, including soy milk, vegetable stocks, and breakfast cereals. 

As always, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian if you feel like you’re falling short on any one of the above and may require a dietary supplement.

p(bio). Marissa Lippert is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in New York City.