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Doing Healthy Vegetarian Eating The Right Way

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Co-written with Nisha Parker

Whether you are considering eating fewer animal products to save money or because you are trying to be more creative with meals, you'll find that going meatless at meal time is easier (and tastier!) than you may think.

Eating more plants is always a good idea, considering most Canadians do not reach the recommended 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, as recommended by Canada's Food Guide. Eating a more plant-based diet is usually cheaper too, since it consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.

A well-planned healthy vegetarian diet can lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and various types of cancer. Even making small dietary changes, such as participating in meatless Mondays, is a great first step towards a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

With proper planning, it is easy to meet all nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet, such as getting enough protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and omega 3 fatty acids. A registered dietitian can help with any additional meal planning and questions, and it is always important to talk to a healthcare professional before making any major dietary changes. If you are thinking about going vegetarian, here are some nutrition guidelines to keep in mind.

"But, where do you get your protein?" This is probably the most common question vegetarians get asked. Protein is important for many body functions, such as growth and maintenance. It is actually quite easy to meet daily protein requirements without eating meat. Protein is made up of amino acids, nine of which cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed from food.

Animal protein is a complete protein, which means that the nine essential amino acids are already found in the proportions we need for our own bodies. In plant foods, the amino acids are present in different proportions, so vegetarians should eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the week to get sufficient protein.

Combining different plant foods (such as beans and rice) can produce a complete protein, but eating them at the same time is not necessary, as long as a variety of plant foods are consumed throughout the day include legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), nuts, nut butters, soy products (tofu, edamame and tempeh), whole grains (pasta, oats, quinoa, etc.), and seeds (eg. hemp seeds). Animal products such as eggs and dairy products (such as yogurt and milk) are also good sources of protein.

Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, comes from anaerobic bacteria found in soil and in the gastrointestinal tracts of many animals. Vitamin B12 is essential for the nervous system, as well as for helping the body use fats and produce red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is typically only found in animals products (with a few exceptions).

Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 include dairy products, eggs, nutritional yeast, some types of algae and fermented foods, and B12 fortified foods such as most non-dairy beverages, meat alternatives, and breakfast cereals. B12 supplementation is often necessary for only those with low levels of vitamin B12.

Iron is important for carrying oxygen in the blood. Non-heme iron, found in plants, is harder to absorb than heme iron, found in animal products, so it is important for vegetarians to pay attention to iron. Plant based iron is more easily absorbed when eaten with vitamin C, which is found in high levels in various fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, grapefruits, mangos, potatoes, broccoli, and kale.

Vegetarian sources of iron include soy products (tofu & tempeh), legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), fortified grain products (breads, cereals, and pasta), certain nuts and seeds (cashews, almonds, pumpkin, and sesame seeds), dried fruit, cooked spinach and kale, and molasses.

Zinc is essential for many reactions in the body, it helps the immune system function properly, and it is needed in cell division and protein formation. Vegetarian sources of zinc include certain dairy products, whole grains, wheat germ, fortified cereals, soy products (tofu and fortified soy beverages), legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), some nuts and nut butters, pumpkin seeds, and tahini.

Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3, or linolenic acid, is needed for heart health and for eye, nerve, and brain development. There are three types of omega 3 fats : alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plants, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are both found in animal products (primarily in seafood).

DHA is the most important for our health, and is found in fish who eat marine algae and phytoplankton, the only plant sources of DHA. Some vegetarian sources of omega 3 fatty acids include omega 3 eggs; canola, flaxseed, walnut, and soybean oils; walnuts; ground flaxseeds; soybeans; tofu; marine algae; and phytoplankton.

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