Over recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of people opting for vegetarian/vegan based lifestyles for various ethical, religious or health reasons, as is evident by the different varieties of diets being followed, not to mention the labels that are preferred. Since this article is general in its scope, let us refer to all these categories as vegetarians just for the sake of simplicity.
Research suggests that vegetarians do enjoy certain health benefits over people who consume meat. They are reported to have higher energy levels, better skin tone and lower risk of coronary disease. One might be tempted to just switch to a vegetarian lifestyle under the belief that it would magically make them healthier. However, it is more important to ensure a balanced intake rather than one that just excludes meat.
While there are many essential nutritional benefits that the human body sources from meat and dairy that are not sufficiently fulfilled by fruits and vegetables, this is not to say that vegetarianism is an unhealthy approach. The key is to supplement these deficiencies adequately in order to provide the body with its vitamin and mineral requirements. Please be advised though, you should always consult a medical professional while choosing any supplements or making any major lifestyle changes.
According to an article by Ginny Messina on The Vegan R.D., the more common deficiencies found in vegetarians include Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D, Calcium and Iron. Not to be forgotten, are Omega-3 Fatty Acids. The importance of these vitamins and minerals to the human body can not be understated.
Important for red blood cell development, maintenance of the nervous system and the immune system to fight diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, B-12 is found naturally in foods from animal sources such as meat and dairy. So if you’re dietary restrictions limit you from consuming milk or eggs, it is essential to supplement with fortified foods or multi-vitamins. Vegetarian friendly sources of Vitamin B-12 include yeast extracts such as Marmite, fortified cereals and soy based products. Adults require 1.5 micrograms of B-12 daily.
Iron is an essential ingredient to haemoglobin and aids the transferring of oxygen from your lungs to your blood stream and subsequently the rest of your body. Although meat is the best source of Iron, there are plenty of vegetables and grains that can contribute to your daily intake such as pulses, beans, nuts, dark green vegetables and whole grains. Other sources such as fortified cereals also include a reasonable amount so it is worth looking at the nutritional information of what you are already consuming before you start supplementing. The daily requirements for adult males is 8.7 mg a day and 14.8 mg a day for women. You may also be able to help your body get its daily dose of iron with the help of a Multivitamin supplement.
Calcium strengthens your bones, regulates the heart beat, clots blood and most importantly, helps the body to effectively use Iron. The benefits and importance of this mineral can not be underestimated. However, the best sources for Calcium are dairy products. This might pose a problem for vegans who do not consume dairy. An adult requires 700 mg of Calcium on a daily basis so it is important to regularly and adequately include Calcium rich/fortified foods or supplements in your diet. Good non-dairy sources include fortified soya, rice and oat milk, leafy green vegetables (but not spinach), dried fruit, sesame seeds, pulses and bread. Again, if you’re unable to get the recommended dose of calcium from your diet, an effective calcium supplement may be something that you might want to include in your diet.
If you live in a climatically conducive environment and manage to spend enough time outdoors, you probably have sufficient levels of Vitamin D since the body produces it’s own when exposed to sunlight. Just 15 minutes of exposure to the face and hands should suffice. However, if you live in a town that’s always overcast and your exposure to sunlight is few and far between, you need to ensure that your dietary intake allows for consumption of Vitamin D or that you are using a Vitamin D supplement to get the required dose. The recommended intake for Vitamin D is 600 International Units for adults under the age of 70 and 800 for those who are older. This deficiency is common in omnivores as well and the consumption of fortified foods and supplements can be beneficial. It is found naturally in egg yolks, a tip that might be useful for lacto-ovo vegetarians and is added to commercially sold milk and yogurt in some countries.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are known to have numerous health benefits such as controlling inflammatory diseases, decreasing the risk for coronary heart disease, lowering blood pressure, lessening the joint pain of arthritis, and protecting against dementia and depression. It is an area where vegetarians lose out though, since evidence suggests that the Omega-3 found in sources other than fatty fish is not as effective. There still are vegetarians friendly options that include flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, soya oil and soya-based foods such as tofu and walnuts. The use of supplements or fortified foods could be beneficial.
It is necessary to mention that there is no better source than nature for these essential nutrients.
A version of the vegetarian food pyramid found at The Vegetarian Center is very useful as a guide to plan your daily meals and your routine otherwise.
Another important thing the chart highlights is that the body needs regular exercise and sleep to allow for optimal production and and consumption of these nutrients, it is all part of the chemical processes that take place. Exercising regularly, even if it is for 30 minutes a day, 4 days a week and sleeping for 7 hours every night can do wonders for your overall health and quality of life. The National Health Service, UK also has a very helpful FAQs section for vegetarians which is definitely a reliable urge of information worth looking into, covering a wide range of health-related tips.
However, if due to any ethical, religious, personal choices or health reasons, you can not ensure the required intake of these vitamins and minerals, it is necessary to keep their levels regulated in your body through fortified sources or multi-vitamins and mineral supplements. Remember, even though it might be harder for vegetarians to balance their diet, the effort is worth it if it represents your beliefs as an individual or as a community.