June 23, 2024
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Considering a Vegetarian Lifestyle?

Dear Jenn,

I’m interested in exploring the possibility of becoming a vegetarian. I’ve read about different aspects of it, but I’m unsure my diet will improve by adopting a vegetarian diet. I am compassionate about animals and always felt badly about killing them for food. Can you offer some advice about the health aspects of a vegetarian diet?


Possible Vegetarian Convert

Dear Possible Vegetarian Convert,

There is much confusing and overwhelming information on the internet and in publications regarding different diets and their health benefits. Plant-based diets are trendy these days. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I can relate to the philosophical-moral-ethical concerns and sensitivity regarding animal life. In our society there is an abundance of animal products used for food, cosmetics and textiles. Using animals for medical advancement can also be heart-wrenching. Below is information to consider when thinking about “converting vegetarian.”.



Carnivore: An animal that eats a diet mainly of meat, whether live animals or dead ones (scavenging).

Herbivores: Animals whose primary food source is plant based.

Vegetarian: A person who does not eat meat and or other animal products, for moral, religious or health reasons.

Omnivore: A human or animal that eats both plants and animal products.

Different Types of Vegetarians

Lacto-Vegetarian: Consumes a diet of milk and plant based foods.

Ovo-Vegetarian: Consumes eggs and a plant-based diet.

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians: Consumes a diet of dairy products, eggs and plant-based foods.

Flexitarian: Consumes a plant based diet with occasional meat items. Vegetarians often criticize this group claiming they are not committed to the philosophy.

Pescatariansm: Consumes fish and a plant based diet. (some will eat dairy at times)

Vegan: Consumes a diet that is exclusively plant based.

Raw Vegan: A subset of veganism. A plant based diet consisting of raw foods or food heated to temperatures not exceeding 104-118 F or 40-48 C.

Note: The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living.” Vegans exclude, if possible, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and other purposes.

Note: Sadly, many products labeled as vegan are tested on animals. However, products certified as “Vegan” by the Vegan Society have not been tested on animals.

Animal-based products are rich in essential nutrients that are easily absorbed by the human body. These nutrients are available in plants but are less available for the human body to digest and absorb. Therefore, nutrient bioavailability (proportion of a nutrient that is absorbed from the diet) must be considered when consuming a plant-based diet. A factor that affects bioavailability is called “anti-nutrients substances,” which help plants function, but block human digestive enzymes from absorbing nutrients (e.g., oxalates, phytates and tannins). Cooking and processing methods affect bioavailability as well.


Nutrients of Concern in Plant-Based Diets

Calcium: Plant sources such as kale, spinach, legumes, and broccoli are naturally rich in calcium. Unfortunately, bioavailability is limited. Anti-nutrient substances in plants compromise digestion and absorption of calcium. Dairy products and enriched calcium products have higher calcium bioavailability.

Vitamin D: Humans acquire Vitamin D by three methods:

1. The skin, which produces Vitamin D3, an “active” bioavailable form of Vitamin D from UV ray stimulation by the sun. Sunning for 15 minutes per day boosts Vitamin D levels.

2. Dietary animal sources such as fish, eggs and fortified dairy products contain the “active” Vitamin D3 form.

3. Plant sources contain the less bioavailable form Vitamin D2. Active Vitamin D3 helps absorb calcium from the gut.

Protein: There are 20 amino acids (protein building blocks) that make up “whole proteins” in various configurations. Animal products contain “complete proteins.” Plants are missing amino acids rendering them “incomplete proteins.” Combining different plant foods together in a meal or snack can produce complete proteins, e.g., grains with legumes, nuts and seeds with legumes, and corn with legumes. This is important for the vegetarian in order to consume adequate protein.

Iron: There are two forms of iron:

1. “Heme iron,” which comes from animal sources such as red meat and egg yolks. These are very bioavailable and readily absorbed from the gut.

2. “Non-heme iron,” which comes from plant sources such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. These are less bioavailable and absorbable in the gut due to anti-nutrients. Cooking and processing methods such as fermenting, germinating, dehulling legumes and malting cereals, help increase bioavailability. Calcium inhibits iron absorption when eaten in the same meal. They compete for intestinal absorption. Coffee and tea have anti-nutrient compounds that inhibit iron absorption. However, Vitamin C increases plant non-heme iron gut absorption.

Zinc: Plant sources of zinc have less bioavailability compared to animal protein sources. Studies suggest processing of plant sources of zinc aids in bioavailability.

Vitamin B12: Is available from microorganisms that produce Vitamin B12 in the digestive tract of ruminants such as cows. Vitamin B12 is not present in plants. Gastric acid in the stomach and a gut protein called “intrinsic factor-(IF)” are involved in the absorption of Vitamin B12 and decrease ability with age. Fortified breakfast cereals with B12 have the “free form” and bioavailable source of Vitamin B12 for vegetarians.

Vitamin A: The “preformed” source of Vitamin A comes from animal sources and is more bioavailable. Sources include liver, fish oils, milk and eggs. The “carotenoid” source of Vitamin A from plants is less bioavailable. However, consuming a varied diet of yellow/orange/red colored fruits and vegetables can compensate. Cooking methods, particularly heating in a little fat/oil, adding acidulated or antioxidant spices such as lime, tamarind, onion or turmeric increase carotenoid bioavailability.

Iodine: Is found in milk and milk products due to the animal feed and disinfectants used in milking. Vegetarians who swap dairy products for plant-based alternatives may be at risk for reduced iodine intake, especially with the push to reduce salt in the diet. Note that seaweed and kelp are rich in iodine but should be limited to once a week to avoid toxicity.


General Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarians derive health benefits from following a plant-based diet. These benefits include lower or reduced rates of the following: low density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (LDLP, bad cholesterol), hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, body mass index (BMI), cancer rates and other chronic illnesses.


In Conclusion

There appear to be health advantages to living a vegetarian lifestyle. However, careful planning of meals and snacks is important to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Cooking and processing of foods contribute to nutrient bioavailability. Enriched and fortified food products as well as nutritional supplements are ways to boost nutrient intake. If you are unsure of how to eat well and maintain adequate nutrient intake with a vegetarian-style diet, a dietician can be of service.

Nutrition Transformations is available to help you navigate a healthy and nutritionally balanced vegetarian diet. We can help you incorporate a wide variety of food selections, recipes and meal planning tips. Call today!

Yours in good health,




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