When you replace a meat-based diet with a vegetarian diet you might initially need a few brief but useful notes on nutrition, as well as information on some food ingredients to be extra wary of. This page should fill in most of the blanks.
Notes on Nutrition
A plant-based diet gives you a more balanced and less toxic food intake than a meat-based one: Little or no cholesterol (healthier blood vessels), little or no animal protein (no osteoporosis and reduced risks of diabetes and stroke), less oxidants (no premature aging), and no blood iron (fewer heart attacks). Instead you get good fat (mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids), vegetable protein (easily digested by the human body), a lot more antioxidants, and safe iron absorbed by the body only in amounts needed.
However, if you are vegetarian in a meat-based culture or in a city you will generally need to pay some extra attention to what you eat on a daily basis, especially so if you are a vegan. In summary what you have to do is to substitute fruit (especially beans and peas) in place of meat as your primary source of protein and, if you are a vegan, make sure you get a daily dose of vitamin B12 as well as calcium. If you live in a place where the sunlight is deficient you will also need a vitamin D supplement.
Additionally, all modern western diets (both meat-based and plant-based) tend to be low on a particular kind of polyunsaturated fat called Omega-3. If you have been consuming hydrogenated fats (as found in margarines based on vegetable oils, most modern cookies and some breads) you should quit at once. Hydrogenated fats or transfats are man-made saturated fats that inhibit your body’s uptake of essential fatty acids including Omega-3. For the same reason it also best to avoid most polyunsaturated oils such as sunflower oil.
A healthy vegetarian diet includes little or no refined foods such as cream, butter, vegetable oil and refined sugar. A typical vegetarian consumes very little or no alcohol, and coffee is a big no no for countless reasons. Instead its better to eat more varied foods such as whole fruits or at least less refined food products such as cheese and tofu, rather than just soy protein. Personally I find fruits rich in healthy saturated and monounsaturated fat such as avocados especially tasty; usually what tastes good also is good.
As a final note: If you manage to get all the calories you need from a varied, less refined, strictly vegetarian diet you can also be certain to get all the nutrients you need. The only modern caveat is that you may have to consume (possibly drink) two or more glasses of fresh organic milk daily, have three or more slices of a B12 rich cheese (not cheddar), or cultivate your own naturally fertilized fruits.
The best source of protein for the human body is the Brazil nut. Others that also serve as excellent sources of iron are the Soy bean and Spinach. Almost anything you eat contain all nine essential amino acids the body needs. Legumes often have very high levels of protein content, but not of all the amino acids. This is why you should also have other sources of protein during a day. However, unlike popular myth in the west it is very easy to obtain all nine essential amino acids even from a strict vegan diet. It is simply a matter of how much you eat. If you want to eat less protein in weight, you can complement the above prime sources of protein with rice or some other grain, such as wheat or even better (richer in protein) spelt. This way you also get the energy and carbohydrates essential to the functioning of the brain.
It is no secret that the male body is better suited for a vegetarian diet and that the female body at some stages in life may crave meat or even blood, but this craving can probably be eliminated by taking iron supplements, or alternatively avoiding milk and getting calcium and vitamins B12 and D from other sources. For males iron supplements should be avoided as excessive iron intake has been linked to acute myocardial infarction (heart attack).
If your diet is not rich in iodine (a nutrient found naturally in seaweed and milk products or artificially in iodized salt) you should avoid consuming unfermented soy foods. Unfermented soyfoods include both raw and cooked soybeans, tofu and textured vegetable protein. These foods are very rich in a group of sometimes less desirable proteins called isoflavones. Isoflavones are the phytoestrogens of the soybean. Phytoestrogens can have both positive (reduced risk of prostate and breast cancer when included along with soyprotein) and negative effects (thyroid problems when consumed without plenty of iodine in the diet) on your health. Fermentation leads to a reduction and sometimes elimination of the isoflavones. Fermented soyfoods are Tempeh, Miso and soy sauce. On the downside fermented foods have been linked to increased risks of stomach and colon cancers.
It is important to not give infants cow’s milk as breast milk is so much better suited for them. Cow’s milk is too poor in both iron and fat and too rich in both calcium and protein. Infants have difficulty digesting animal protein and the excess protein can damage kidneys and even the central nervous system. The excess calcium along with insufficient iron in cow’s milk leads to iron deficiency. Finally, infants need a lot of fat for their developing brains and especially modern milk (cows bred for milk quantity rather than quality) is notoriously short on this nutrient. For various health reasons it is obviously a generally good idea to consume as little milk as possible. Breast-feeding women should avoid cow’s milk completely as it tends to go directly to the infant.
As it happens the requirements of this particular vitamin is much lower than for all the others. Two glasses of milk or a few slices of cheese contain enough of this vitamin even for a pregnant woman. Unlike vitamin C, the body can also store B12 for years.
Vegetarians who do not consume any milk or cheese are likely to need supplements of vitamin B12. This vitamin is synthesized by bacteria in the body and is found in meat, fish, eggs, milk and human manure. B12 is absorbed in the body in the presence of calcium. Since the body needs so very little B12 it may get by on its own stores for many years without reaching deficiency. It is possible to maintain sufficient levels of B12 by eating unwashed vegetables fertilized with human manure, but this is hardly practical for most city dwellers.
Milk is a good source of vitamin B12 and the calcium needed for its absorbtion in the body. Two glasses of regular milk (unboiled) should contain 2 microgram of the vitamin, which is the recommended daily intake. Some cheeses also contain good amounts of B12. Fewer than five slices (28 g each) of Dutch Gouda or just three slices of Swiss cheese are enough to meet most people’s requirements of this vitamin.
- About Vegetarianism and Nutrition from the Richard Schwartz collection.
- High-Protein Diets: Trading Your Health for Temporary Weight Loss by Dr. John McDougall.
- USDA Nutrition Debate transcript from the United States department of Agriculture.
If you are a strict vegetarian of any kind you are probably eager to avoid the following ingredients:
animal rennet (milkfed calves),
whey (usually a by-product of cheese production involving animal rennet),
and so called
natural flavor (sometimes misleading language for beef extract).
For animal rennet there are many vegetarian alternatives.
Gelatin, animal rennet and whey are also considered unlawful
(non-Halal or non-Kosher)
in Islam and Judaism.
Here is a bunch of links with more information on food ingredients;
what they are, where they can be expected, and alternatives.
- Cheese & Rennet by the Vegetarian Society.
- Animal Ingredients and Their Alternatives by Binit Nalinkumar Shah of Jain World.
- Not all Whey is Made the Same Way by Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed of the Albalagh Newsletter.
- The Complex World of Whey, Cream & Butter by Rabbi Moshe Elefant of Kosher Today Newspaper.
Vegetarians, Vegans and Frutarians
A vegetarian is literally someone who eats wholesome foods, which usually means fruits, beans, peas, lentils, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as foods directly derived from these and specifically intended for consumption such as milk. In practice this excludes meat, fish and eggs, but most often includes milk from vegetarian cows (not tortured or fed their own offspring).
Strict vegetarians exclude bird eggs on the grounds of taste, that they may be fertilized, or their source (the female reproductive organ). A contemporary reason could be compassion for hens kept caged for life and slaughtered by the millions as soon as there is a salmonella outbreak. Fish eggs are excluded because you need to kill the fish to obtain the eggs.
Honey is avoided by many vegetarians, myself included, as consumption of honey means the killing of bees. Potatoes and other edibles underground are for similar reasons avoided by some. Vegetarian monks in India and China also abstain from vegetables in the onion family. The reason being their pungent smell and desire-fueling properties.
A vegan is a vegetarian who does not consume milk products (from animals), i.e. someone who not only avoids animal meat in all forms (fish, pork, chicken, eggs, etc.) but also all dairy products. So called ovo-vegetarians do eat eggs, but probably not from fish. The strictest kind of vegetarian is a frutarian. This kind of vegetarianism excludes vegetables and only includes fruits except grains.