In the midst of my Doctor of Traditional Naturopathy studies, I decided to become a vegetarian – vegan, mostly. It wasn’t for ethical reasons; it was for health reasons. Since then, I have been asked by many people “How do I become vegetarian?” “I’m so glad you asked!” is always my reply! You see, many people who decide to become vegetarians become less healthy because they simply eliminate meats from their diet. They don’t replace the meat with another type of food. They eat a lot of refined, white pasta and meatless pizza made with bleached, white flour. Candy, Soda, French fries and potato chips, which are technically “vegetarian”, are staples in their diet. They seem to miss the “VEG” in vegetarian. Perhaps, we should use the term “Herbivore” or even “Plantitarian” to help people to realize that eliminating meat is not the end of the story. There are good vegetarians and bad vegetarians and bad vegetarians are not healthy.
If you decide to become vegetarian, for any reason – ethics, health, taste, etc., you need to make sure that you are selecting a wide variety of healthy foods, namely plants, to meet your nutrient needs. Here are a few tips to help you to be a healthy vegetarian.
1) Eat Whole Foods – Whole foods are the type of foods that don’t require a label. They have only one ingredient. Examples of whole foods include: apples, cabbage, walnuts, blueberries, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, quinoa, oatmeal, honey, garlic, sweet potatoes and kiwis. Foods made with ONLY whole foods count too. For example, hummus: chickpeas, tahini (mashed sesame seeds), garlic and lemon juice.
2) Read Labels – If you do buy (rather than make) something like hummus, be sure to read the label. If it isn’t made entirely of whole food ingredients, don’t buy it and don’t eat it. Sodium benzoate (a preservative) is included in many varieties of store-bought hummus. A good rule of thumb is to only purchase foods with 5 or fewer ingredients and all of them need to be whole foods.
3) Replace Protein – The number one question I get asked as a vegetarian is “How do you get enough protein?” First of all, if you are eating a variety of whole foods, you are likely getting enough protein. If you continue to eat eggs and dairy, you are certainly getting enough protein but if you aren’t, you will need to ensure that you get your protein from healthy sources. High protein foods you can include in some of your meals are: beans (chickpeas/garbanzos, kidney, black, pinto, lima, lentils, etc.), high protein grains such as quinoa or amaranth, and nuts/seeds. You do not need to eat soy and many natural health professionals, myself included, discourage the consumption of soy (including tofu – GASP! A vegetarian who won’t eat tofu!). Remember, you don’t need a ton of protein in your diet (roughly 8-10% of total calories) so don’t go crazy. Even an apple has some protein in it.
4) 1:4 Ratio – while fruits are delicious and a part of a balanced vegetarian diet, you should make sure that you are eating no more than 1 serving of fruit for every 4 servings of vegetables. Speaking of servings; since whole foods don’t have a label, many people don’t know what constitutes a serving. With a fruit or vegetable that is dense like broccoli, carrots, apples and potatoes, a serving equals a half-cup. For less dense foods like spinach, sprouts and kale, one cup equals a serving. Lots of fruits mean lots of sugars and it’s best to moderate consumption.
5) Eat a Rainbow – Different colored plants contain a variety of phytonutrients and antioxidants in their nutrient cache. While green is the foundation of a vegetarian diet, be sure that you are regularly including food plants that are red, orange, yellow, blue, purple and even white (garlic, onions, oatmeal, etc.)
6) Vitamin B-12 (cobalamin) – the nutrient that is hardest to come by when eating a plant-based diet is vitamin B-12. You can have a simple blood test done to check your levels. If it is determined that you are deficient in this vitamin, you can take a supplement. The most bio-available form (and the hardest to find on the shelf) is the methylcobalamin version. A sublingual (under the tongue) lozenge is best.
7) Cravings – the more healthy foods you eat; the more healthy foods you will crave. I didn’t believe it either, but it’s true. As you body adjusts to a natural, plant-based diet, you will find yourself craving foods like blueberries or broccoli or sweet potatoes instead of chips and cookies. You may even develop as aversion to such things. Give it time. The longer you do it, the easier and more enjoyable it gets. Consider starting with “Meatless Mondays” and working from there.
Being a vegetarian isn’t the easiest thing in our society but it is one of the healthiest – as long as you do it correctly. So ditch the chips and cookies for some apple slices and cashews and enjoy the healthy benefits of a “good” vegetarian lifestyle.
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