GOING VEGGIE – Even Small Changes To Your Family’s Diet Can Result In Major Benefits To Your Health

By Jennifer MacTavish, RD

Interest in vegetarian eating has increased over the past few years, and the trend is expected to continue into the next decade.

Movement towards a vegetarian lifestyle can be motivated by health, cultural, environmental, or ethical reasons. Whatever the motivation, well-planned vegetarian diets that include a variety of foods, can adequately meet the nutrient needs of people of all ages and stages.

Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetic Association agree that properly planned vegetarian diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate, and have health benefits in terms of disease prevention and treatment. Compared to more conventional diets, vegetarianism is associated with a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers, in addition to lower levels of blood cholesterol and lower blood pressure. These health benefits may be related to lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fibre, and phytochemicals in vegetarian diets compared with typical North American diets.

The term ‘vegetarian’ refers to an eating plan that does not include meat, poultry, or seafood. The foundation for a vegetarian diet is based on grain products, fruit, vegetables, legumes (dried peas and beans), nuts, seeds, soy products, and plant-based fats.

There are, however, varying degrees of vegetarian eating. They include:

Pesco Vegetarian – Excludes meat and poultry. Includes fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.

Lacto Ovo Vegetarian – Excludes meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. Includes dairy and egg products.

Lacto Vegetarian – Excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs. Includes dairy products.

Vegan – Excludes all animal products (meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and products made from them).

By choosing a variety of foods and consuming enough to meet energy needs, a vegetarian diet can meet a person’s nutrient requirements throughout their lifecycle, from infancy to adulthood. If you are thinking of introducing your family to a more vegetarian eating pattern, one nutrient you may be wondering about is protein. It is the main building block for our bodies, and is used to build and repair tissue (including bones, muscles, skin, and blood). Good vegetarian sources of protein include legumes (dried beans and peas); soy products (tofu, veggie burgers, soymilk); nuts and seeds and their butters (peanut and almond butter, tahini); eggs; dairy products; some whole grains (such as quinoa and buckwheat); and fish, for people who continue to consume it.

You should consume a variety of different plant proteins every day. These include:

Iron – The role of iron is to help carry oxygen throughout the body, while serving an important role in growth and development. Good vegetarian sources include legumes, dried fruit, eggs, blackstrap molasses, whole and fortified grains and cereals, nuts, seeds, and dark green vegetables. Iron absorption from plant-based foods is increased when consumed with Vitamin C-rich foods including peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, and broccoli.

Zinc – Zinc is an essential nutrient for growth and development. It is also involved in immune function and wound healing. Good vegetarian sources include nuts and seeds and their butters, legumes, whole grains, and soy products.

Omega-3 fats – These fats are important for brain and eye development, and for heart health. Good vegetarian sources include canola oil, flax and hemp seeds, and their oils, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and foods fortified with DHA. Fatty fish and shellfish are excellent sources of Omega-3 fats for people who continue to include these foods.

Vitamin B12 – This helps your body make red blood cells and is important for normal nerve functioning. Good vegetarian sources include fortified foods (soymilk, meat analogs, ready-to-eat cereals, nutritional yeast), dairy products, eggs, and fish.

For people who adopt a vegan-eating pattern, care must be taken to ensure adequate intakes of energy, calcium, and Vitamins D and B12, in addition to the nutrients mentioned above. The Canadian Pediatric Society agrees that well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy options at all stages of fetal, infant, child, and adolescent growth, provided attention is paid to specific nutrients, and energy intakes are adequate. Supplementation may be required for some people following a strict vegan pattern. Talk to your health care provider or a dietitian if you are unsure. Overly restrictive diets are not recommended for any age group.

If a vegetarian eating plan is not even on your radar, why not consider one vegetarian meal a week? Many people are adopting ‘Meatless Mondays’ as a way to incorporate more vegetarian foods into their lives. Regardless of your choices around animal products, a healthy diet is based on whole foods, variety, balanced meals, a regular eating pattern, and limiting consumption of foods that are refined, deep fried, processed or laden with added fats, sugars, and salt.

Jennifer MacTavish is a Registered Dietician with the Brockton & Area Family Health Team.
Learn more about the Family Health Team at www.bafht.com or call to speak to one of the dietitians today.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 edition of Grey-Bruce Kids.