Becoming a vegetarian was a choice I made after being diagnosed with cancer. Everything I read at the time established this lifestyle to be most beneficial for cancer patients. I gave it a go, knowing that a vegetarian diet provided more fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals that I needed to help my body “fight”.
Yet, despite my best intentions at the time, I didn’t know how to be a “healthy” vegetarian.
I had become so accustomed to eating animal protein, I didn’t compensate for the protein and other essential nutrients that I had previously sourced from meat. In addition to my naivety, I’m a type O blood type, the oldest blood type, so it is in my DNA to crave/need animal protein! After about a year of living the vegetarian life, I became so weak, I could barely function. I knew this wasn’t just the cancer talking, my intuition was telling me that I needed a little animal protein and adding it back in to my diet 3 days a week was the “pick me up” I desperately needed. I felt like a new person!
Now, my carnivorous change of heart might sound strange to the approx. 2.8 million vegetarians in the U.S. and I don’t mean to be offensive! If anything the experience led me to two solid conclusions. One, being a vegetarian is a personal choice that requires commitment and education; Two, I did not know how to be a healthy vegetarian!
Ironically, many years later, I now educate my clients on how to live the healthiest plant-based lifestyle they can. Despite my own self-botched experience, I still believe that if you approach a vegetarian lifestyle appropriately, you can significantly improve your health starting with these 5 tips:
Tip 1: You Need to Consume Enough Protein
Here are some guidelines regarding required protein intake:
4-12 years of age: 19-34 grams a day
Teenage boys: 52 grams a day.
Teenage girls: 46 grams a day
Adult men: 56 grams a day
Adult women: 46 grams a day (71 grams if pregnant or breastfeeding)
I recommend that 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from protein, contingent upon your health status and exercise habits. Some vegetarian protein sources that I love are organic sprouted tofu (4 ozs = 18 grams), tempeh (4 ozs = 21 grams), edamame (1 cup = 20 grams), lentils (1 cup = 15 – 18 grams), avocado (whole = 4 grams), hemp seeds (1/4 cup = 11 grams) and pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup = 10 grams), quinoa (1 cup = 9 grams), millet (1 cup = 8 grams), almond butter (2 tablespoons = 8 grams) and ; as well as green leafy vegetables, especially romaine lettuce (2 1/2 cups = 7.2 grams).
Don’t eat more than 30 grams of protein in one meal. You might be tempted to just squeeze as much as possible into every meal, but more isn’t always better. Studies have shown that only the first 30 grams consumed in a meal contribute to building muscle, and going for more could backfire. “Unlike starch or glucose, we have no storage form of protein,” Gromer says. “Once you go beyond the amount that you can absorb in one sitting, it will turn into fat stores.” (Gasp!)
Tip 2: The Importance of Iron
If you’ve ever been lacking in the iron department, you know the exact lethargy I’m talking about. Iron is critical for energy production, blood formation, and optimal immunity. Vegetarians need to have twice the amount of iron (woman 19-50 yrs. old need approximately 18 mg/men 18+ = 8 mg) intake as meat eaters, because iron is absorbed less efficiently from plant sources than it is from animal proteins.
By adding vitamin C, you help your body absorb iron. This is why it’s important to consume enough vitamin C, which isn’t challenging within a vegetarian diet. Hearty vegetarian sources of iron include tempeh (4 ozs = 6.6 mg), spirulina (1 tsp = 5 mg), pumpkin seeds (2 tablespoons = 4.2 mg), quinoa (1/2 cup = 4 mg), white beans (1/2 cup = 3.9 mg), spinach (1/2 cup = 3.2 mg) and lentils (1/2 cup = 3 mg),
Tip 3: Consume Healthy Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Most of my clients are not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids and this scares me. It’s hard when you’re not vegetarian, and it’s even harder when you are! Omega-3 fatty acids are important for immune strength, energy, and heart health, while preventing Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and depression.
Cooking oils, beans, and nuts are high in omega-6 fatty acids, but without a ratio of essential fats, your immune system will suffer. Most Americans are eating far too much omega-6 fatty acids, which can lead to inflammation. Since omega-6s are pro-inflammatory and omega-3s create anti-inflammatory effects, balance is essential.
Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flax (2 tablespoons = 6.3 grams), chia (1 tablespoon = 3 grams), and hemp seeds (2 tablespoons = 1.1 gram), walnuts (1/4 cup = 2.27 grams), and seaweed (1 cup = 928 mgs). Hemp hearts are one of my favorites! They have a rich, nutty flavor and can be thrown into any green juice, smoothie or salad.
Tip 4: Are You Getting Enough Zinc?
You must be on the constant look out for zinc, another critical nutrient necessary for balanced hormones and immunity. Since whole grains and fiber contain phytates that interfere with zinc absorption, vegetarians need more than the recommended 15 mg daily dosage. Plant sources of zinc include dark chocolat (3.5 ozs = 9.6 mgs), wheat germ (3 tablespoons = 8.5 mgs), sesame seeds (3 tablespoons = 5 mgs), cooked oatmeal (1 cup = 2.3 mgs), legumes (1 cup = 2 mg), sunflower seeds (1/4 cup = 1.7 mg), and tempeh (4 ozs = 1 mg)
Tip 5: The Calcium and Vitamin B12 Team
If you choose to be vegan, cutting out dairy and eggs, then calcium and B12 replacements are imperative. Calcium is important for strong, healthy bones and effective communication within the brain. Vitamin B12 is needed in order to maintain healthy nerves and cells, while preventing chronic fatigue.
Men and women need approximately 1,000 – 1,200 mg of calcium each day. Increase your calcium count with calcium fortified coconut, soy or almond milk (1 cup = 300 mg); and through leafy green vegetables like collard greens (1 cup = 357 mg), turnip greens (1 cup = 249), kale (1 cup = 179 mg), and swiss chard (1 cup – 152 mg); additional sources are tempeh (8 ozs = 184 mg), tahini (2 tablespoons = 128 mg), and navy beans (1 cup = 126 mg).
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal protein, milk products, and eggs, so as a vegan you should consider a B12 lozenge. You can also consume B12 supplements or fortified food products. Some of the most commonly fortified foods are non-dairy milks and cereals.
Although some supplements will rely on spirulina, sea vegetables, and nutritional yeast, these do not contain adequate amounts of B12 to prevent deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies must be avoided because they can easily lead to disease and a depletion of energy.
Having a hard time getting the hang of this plant-based lifestyle? Reach out to me personally email@example.com for a nutritional consult to get you on the healthy track! If you’re looking for recipe inspiration, be sure to check out the recipe section of my blog, I have loads of healthy and delicious vegetarian options!