This week, 14th to the 20th of May, is national vegetarian week here in the United Kingdom, providing people and organisations like The Vegetarian Societywith an excellent opportunity to share tasty non-meat recipes. It also allows for the discussion on the health benefits of vegetarianism to take place with a national scope. Vegetables, both through the essential nutrients they provide as well as the absence of some of dietary components of meat-based diets (cholesterol, fat), are widely agreed to be a critical part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
There are additional considerations that a vegetable based diet does require in order to supply a person a fully balanced diet, however. Meat, in moderation, proves to be an excellent source of certain nutritional elements that our bodies require and are difficult to find in plant based sources. This can often be one of the major things cited by people as a reason why being a vegetarian or vegan is simply not feasible for their lifestyle, but with just a little bit of extra effort in preparation, the requirement of consuming a varied catalogue of vegetables yields the additional benefit of a constantly changing and exciting diet. The following list indicates some of the nutrients that vegetarians should be mindful of consuming, as well as the sources that act as an alternative to meat, including links to some recipe ideas. This is not a dietary plan, but can act as a good starting point when beginning to construct a balanced vegetable based diet, while taking into account the nutritional requirements of the average individual.
Calcium is something that most people know as being the main nutrient that the body needs for healthy bone growth, in addition to aiding nervous system messaging processes. Calcium is present in milk, specifically cow’s milk. Milk is still part of a vegetarian diet, but if you are looking to veer more towards a vegan diet, bok choy, broccoli and kale are also good sources. Bok choy is great either raw and served with dip, grilled, or chopped in a salad. Rodale’s Organic Life has a list of 12 ways to cook bok choy, including links to some specific recipes.
Iodine is not something that the normal person needs a lot of, about 150 micrograms per day for adults according to the US FDA, but it can be difficult to find from anything outside of the sea. The body uses Iodine to metabolize food into energy, as well as facilitating normal thyroid function. Iodized salt or kelp are the best options for those who wish to avoid seafood. If you are pescitarian then fish is a much better source, with the additional benefit of containing essential fatty acids. Fish as a major dietary source, depending on where it was caught, also carries some concern for Mercury levels. Kelp is a great ingredient to include in a soup, especially with tofu. Eatingwell.com has a lovely recipe, though for the sake of vegetarian week the optional ¼ cup diced strip steak should be skipped for now.
Iron is a vital nutrient for the healthy production of red blood cells which are the vehicles for oxygen transmission throughout the body, allowing for all the other reactions to take place that sustain life as a complex organism. We have talked here before about the importance of iron consumption, especially for women, as the required daily intake for the average woman is 18mg, compared to the 8mg for men. Iron deficiency is the greatest micronutrient deficiency in the world, and it is can be difficult for vegetarians to get enough. This comes down to essentially two reasons:
Every type of meat contains iron, as it is essential to the function of the animal cells, where only a few plants contain enough iron to qualify as a “good source”
Meats contain the type of iron that is more easily absorbed by the body
Most people know about the first point, but the second is less widely understood. There are basically two types of iron in our food, as least as far as your stomach is concerned; Heme iron and non heme iron. Heme iron is only found in animal based sources, and is the type of iron that is much easier for the human body to process and use in a useful manner. As no plants contain this type of iron, vegetarians must consume more non heme iron in order to make up the difference. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, actually helps to increase non heme iron absorption. As such, kale makes another all-star appearance on our essential foods list as it not only contains the Iodine that we discussed earlier, but also vitamin C AND iron. For variety’s sake, a smoothie containing both lemon and spinach is another great way to help get all the iron that your body needs. The appropriately named Healthy Smoothie Headquarters is a great starting point, and replacing the kale with spinach in this recipe would go a long way to hitting your daily iron and vitamin C goals.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The benefits of omega 3 fatty acids, as well as their idealized ratio to the more common omega 6 fatty acids, has been described brilliantly in this article by Bulletproof Blog, for those who want to go a bit more in depth with their analysis. The shortened version of the article is that fats with short chemical chains (3 is smaller than 6, omega 3 fatty acids have a shorter chain than omega 6) are more rare, and are better for your cells as while both types do similar things (brain function, muscle growth, hormone production), omega 3s act as an anti-inflammatory while omega 6s can cause inflammation. This is an oversimplification, but for good sources of omega 3s, flaxseed, walnuts, and some soy are where you find these, assuming that fish are still off the menu (literally). Walnuts taste great raw and flaxseed can provide a nice crunch when added to a morning yogurt. Walnuts and flaxseeds, as well as most other types of nuts and soybeans are a great source of proteins as well, another area that some vegetarian diets can struggle. From livestrong.com, this Flaxseed & Walnut Soy Yogurt recipe hits all the notes we are looking for here.
B12 deficiency is extremely common in vegetarians and vegans due to it only being naturally found in animal sources. B12, like iron, is essential for red blood cell production, as well as neurological functions. The solution here for vegetarians is milk, yogurt, and eggs. For vegans, supplementation is the most efficient source of B12, but thankfully the folks over at livekindly.co have done the legwork of compiling 11 vitamin B12 rich vegan recipes. This one is a favorite of mine, as number six has been titles “superfood chocolate sauce”.
Sunshine sounds like a funny recommendation for dietary supplementation, but the human body actually produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight! This can be difficult for office workers or those in colder climates, so fortified milk (either cow or soy) or mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light can meet the body’s vitamin D requirements. Vitamin D actually helps the body absorb calcium, which makes it doubly useful for those who may have difficulties drinking cow’s milk. Vitamin D also plays a role in the nervous, muscular, and immune systems. Portobello mushrooms as an addition to any salad is the way to go here!
The last of the micronutrients we will be discussing here, most people get their zinc again from animals. Soy products, peanuts and legumes also contain zinc, though much like heme vs non heme iron, the bioavailability of zinc from these sources can be lower than in animal sources. Fortunately, raw, unsalted peanuts are a fantastic snack, and they can provide some of the fat content that veggies inherently lack (the body needs some fat to function effectively). If you are looking for something a bit more adventurous, this coconut quinoa recipe with strawberries contains 16.8 mg of zinc, or 113% of the typical adult’s daily requirements, not to mention a host of other benefits. Zinc is used by the body mostly as a way to bolster the ranks in its immune system, as zinc is essential in immune system cell growth and division, among other things.
In conclusion, maintaining a healthy balanced diet takes some effort, with or without the inclusion of meat or animal products. That effort, while initially daunting, can lead to not only a better lifestyle from a pure health perspective, but it can also lead to a more fulfilling, exciting, and tasty cuisine, with the additions of some of the recipes and ideas noted above.