Vegetarian Health Tips

Katinka Hesselink

My collection of health tips for vegetarians. There is a lot of news about healthy foods these days and some of it just doesn't fit the vegetarian diet. This is my attempt at keeping it all straight and simple (and with as few pills as possible).

I've focused on the myths and facts about vegetarian nutrition. What issues should you watch out for, and risks need you not be afraid of?

Types of vegetarians

Vegetarian: Anyone who doesn't eat meat. Vegetarians don't eat fish either. Many vegetarians in the West do consume dairy products and eggs.

Vegan: people who don't eat meat, or consume animal products (like milk, cheese, eggs). Vegans will often try to avoid using animal products like leather as well.

Indian vegetarian: vegetarian but avoiding eggs as well as meat and fish products. The idea is that eggs might be fertilized and that means they might be alive.

Flexitarian: Lives mostly on a vegetarian diet, but doesn't mind meat and or fish on occasions like holidays or parties.

Change takes time

I always feel changes like this should be done slowly.

Don't quit eating meat cold turkey one day. Instead experiment with eating meet only half the days first (or just one day a week). That gives you time to get used to vegetarian cooking and learn about alternatives, great recipes etc.

If you've done that for a month or so, THEN you can go totally vegetarian. Your body will have gotten used to things like beans in the meantime. It will know how to respond to not getting meat daily.

Omega 3 and 6 - healthy oils

This is the topic that got me started on this page. The Dutch government is putting up a major campaign that people should eat fish, or take fish-oil pills.

This has obvious environmental disadvantages: most edible fish species are at risk of extinction if things go on the way they are going.

Taking pills isn't going to help: they still contain Fish-oil.

So, my question was: where do we vegetarians get our omega-3 and omega-6 oils? It turns out most vegetarians aren't at risk of getting too little omega-6 oils. Those are present in salad dressing, peanut butter etc.

The issue is the omega-3 oils. So here are some sources:

Pregnant mothers should probably take direct sources of omega-3 oils because they are very important in brain development for the unborn child.

Vegetarian food is not automatically healthier, or unhealthy

Vegetarians need to watch what they eat just as much as ordinary folks do.
Some things we are less prone to (too much animal fat).

Other things we are more prone to (not getting enough vitamin B).

The risks of a vegetarian diet

The best known risk of a vegetarian diet is really overrated:

Protein

Protein deficiency is hard to come by in this part of the world. Since vegetarians can consume milk, cheese, yogurt etc. we can easily get our protein from animal products. For those with more principles the protein in legumes and especially soy is a decent replacement.

B Vitamins

We don't need a lot of vitamin B, and the body stores it. I think I did 12 years on the vitamin B I had stored in the first 20 odd years of my life. But now, finally, my vegetarian lifestyle has caught up with me and I'm on vitamin B supplement pills.

The B vitamins (there are several) are formed from either bacteria, yeast's, fungi, or molds. This means that the vitamin B supplement pills are usually vegetarian. After all it's much cheaper to just grow bacteria than it is to extract the vitamin from meat.

The specific vitamins vegetarians will have trouble with are Vitamin B12 (not found in any vegetable source) and B3 (mostly found in Fish and chicken but also in nuts).

Vitamin B is contained in a number of vegetarian foods like (again) milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese etc.

Tell tale signs: having trouble keeping your hands steady? Go to the doctor or just buy the pills.

Generally speaking the B vitamins are often found in wholegrain products and nuts. Nowadays there are many products for sale that have been fortified with these vitamins.

Nutritional Yeast

A tasty way to get vitamin B12, while avoiding animal foods

You can avoid those pesky pills (and who likes pills?) - and yet get your vitamin B12 on a vegetarian diet with Nutritional Yeast. No longer active (or alive as it is when you want to make dough rise from yeast), it still has a great taste and provides those vitamins we all need.

Iron

This is one I worry about sometimes. Yet research shows that vegetarians are just as likely (or unlikely) to get enough iron in their diet.

The reason that it isn't a problem is that iron gets absorbed in the body best when it's combined with vitamin C. Eating spinach would work for that.

Iron is contained in the following vegetable sources:

Personally I eat spinach a lot, but also put apple spread on my wholewheat bread. The Dutch recipe for apple spread contains iron in large quantities (not from the apples obviously).

Reader responses

Pretty comprehensive article! Vegetable foods are actually automatically healthier because they have no cholesterol and cancer-preventing qualities, but processed foods are often hardly food it's true and some are more nutritious than others (i.e. spinach compared to celery). Always good to see nutritional yeast being promoted.. I've been largely or essentially vegan for a long time and it's easy, I just think if it were dog meat or dog milk would I even consider it..? Then b12 supplements don't seem so out of the ordinary.
Vegetarians may be at lower diabetes, heart risk. A new study finds that a meat-free diet seems to lower a person's likelihood of having certain risk factors for diabetes or heart disease -- and therefore may lower the risk of one day developing those illnesses. (Source Affective.com)
My husband has been a vegetarian for over 20yrs and he is very healthy. We always experiment with vegetable recipes and we are into juicing too. Thanks for the tips....
Another good tip to ease your way into becoming a vegetarian-is to eat more mushrooms. Mushrooms have the texture as some meats. I have never eatten that much red meat. For 8 years-the only thing I would eat is a small chicken breast once a in a while, or a piece of white fish but besides that, I ate a lot of chick peas and beans, veggies and fruits.
I only experimented with a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet for about a year in my youth...but to this day, I eat red meat only rarely and chicken not very often either. And I find vegetarian fare very satisfying...especially aromatic Indian dishes. Red lentils with cumin....Potatoes with cauliflower...rice with peas. Mmm. They all make my mouth water.