Are you considering switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet? Perhaps you've seen studies showing that vegetarians tend to live longer and have lower rates of obesity, cancer and other diseases. Maybe you've read a book or watched a documentary exploring the environmental impact of our food choices. Or you're concerned about animal welfare.
Whatever the motivation, more people are experimenting with vegetarianism than ever before. But simply giving up animal products does not ensure a healthy diet, and older adults following a vegetarian or vegan diet need to be particularly careful.
Vegetarians of all ages are at a slightly higher risk of certain nutrient shortfalls, including calcium, Vitamin D and B-12. And these nutrients are already a concern with older adults, even when they do consume animal products.
Vegetarians also tend to take in less protein than omnivores. Although most vegetarians get enough protein to meet the minimal requirements (about 10 per cent of total calories), more and more research suggests that higher protein intakes (20 to 25 per cent of total calories) may be a key to successful aging.
Nutrient Checklist For A Plant-Based Diet
If you're considering adopting a plant-based diet, follow these tips to make sure you're getting all the nutrients you need to be at your best.
1. Include some protein with every meal and snack.
Many vegetarians consume eggs and/or dairy products, and both are excellent sources of high-quality protein. For those who consume no animal products whatsoever, tofu and other soy-based foods offer the highest protein quality and quantity per serving. Although other beans, whole grains and nuts (such as almonds) contain protein, the amount of protein that you get per serving (and per calorie) is much lower. A soy- or whey-based protein powder is another way to add more high-quality protein to your meals.
2. Be sure to get enough calcium.
Most dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, providing about one-quarter of your daily need per serving. Certain vegetables are also good sources of calcium, especially bok choy, turnip greens, collards and kale. Each serving provides up to one-sixth of your daily needs. Tofu can also be a reliable source, with each serving supplying up to half a day's requirement. If you suspect you're not getting the recommended 1,200 milligrams of calcium most days, consider taking a calcium supplement. But take only as much as you need to fill the gap between your dietary intake and the recommendation.
3. Consider a Vitamin D supplement.
Older adults are very likely to be deficient in Vitamin D, a nutrient that is not widely available from diet. One of the richest natural sources of Vitamin D is fish, which most vegetarians do not eat. (And even those who do probably don't eat it every day.) Vitamin D is also added to milk and non-dairy alternatives, but this alone is probably not an adequate source. Check with your doctor about taking a Vitamin D3 supplement. The recommended intake is 600 IU per day for adults, and it increases to 800 IU per day for those over 70.
4. Consider a B-12 supplement.
Vitamin B-12 is a nutrient only found in animal foods, so all vegans must supplement their diets with B-12. However, as we get older we often lose some of our ability to absorb B-12 from foods. As a result, B-12 deficiency is more common in older adults, even those who consume animal products. Vitamin B-12 is somewhat easier to absorb from supplements and fortified foods, and the National Institutes of Health recommends that older adults get their B-12 from these sources. Many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with B-12 (check the side panel to be sure), and most multi-vitamin supplements include it as well.
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified, licensed nutritionist and professionally trained chef. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, CBS News and Morning Edition, as well as leading newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of six books, including Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet, and creator of the Nutrition Diva podcast (one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts).
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Truth: Experts used to think certain foods, like rice and beans, had to be eaten together to replace the protein of meat. Now we know the mix-and-match at the same meal isn't necessary. Plant foods contain protein building blocks called amino acids. And as long as a variety of plant foods with amino acid profiles that complement each other are eaten throughout the day, meatless munchers can get enough protein from plant sources alone.
Truth: "I hear this a lot from male athletes," says Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, and author of Vegetarian Sports Nutrition (Human Kinetics, 2006). "But even athletes can get enough protein through plant foods alone. You just have to eat enough calories from a diet that includes a variety of plant protein foods, including legumes, soy foods, nuts, seeds and grains."
Truth: "There's more to select from within a plant-based diet than you might think," says Larson-Meyer. "Sometimes it's just a matter of seeking out new foods and new options." Investigate your grocery store with a keen eye. How many never-before-tried fruits and vegetables do you see? How many grains? "There are so many different kinds of legumes, and they all taste slightly different when put in combinations with leafy greens, pasta, grains, and nuts," she says. Another tip: Head for the ethnic aisle for enticing new spices and flavors.
Truth: "Many of your favorite foods may actually be vegetarian," says Larson-Meyer, "like pasta, tomato sauce, bean burritos, pizza, and salad." And who says you have to give up all your favorite meat dishes. Try to transform some meat meals into vegetarian versions. "Trade ground beef for chunked-up portobello mushroom or textured vegetable protein," she says. "And marinated tofu is a great replacement in chicken dishes. Beans also work well as meat substitutes."
Truth: "Many people who say they don't like tofu have only tried it plain right out of the package, which is a shame because it's so tasty when prepared by people who cook with it all the time," says Larson-Meyer. "Try tofu prepared at a Thai or Japanese restaurant." Later, experiment at home by pan frying tofu in a spicy Thai peanut sauce or marinating chunks of it in teriyaki sauce and grilling it kebab style with vegetables.
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