Vegetarian eating is not simply not eating meat. It is a unique way of eating mostly plant-based that provides all essential nutrients in adequate amounts to meet your basic nutritional needs. Most vegetarians are well-intended in their quest to change their protein sources, but neglect to do the research to know what they need to add to their diet in order that it is 100% complete. There are five common omissions that over time, can predispose vegetarians to important health issues, ranging from diabetes to infertility. Here is a checklist to be sure your own vegetarian lifestyle is steering you in the right direction.
1. What are my protein sources and how much of it do I need to truly give me enough protein?
Vegans and vegetarians should typically aim to get 10% more protein than the RDA for protein recommends especially if you mostly consume protein from whole plant foods. This is because whole plant protein sources (think whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc.) tend to have lower digestibilities, which means your body isn't absorbing 100% of the protein in those foods. This is entirely normal for plant-based foods. So ultimately, if your body requires 90 grams of protein a day, aim to eat 100 grams.
You can get an estimate of how much protein you need each day by going to our protein calculator. The number next to Optimum (0.8 g/kg BW) is the bare minimum number of grams of protein you should be consuming each day. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, then you should aim for at least 10% more than that number. If it sounds like a lot, Growing Naturals plant-based protein powders can help you hit the mark. Each scoop/serving of rice or pea protein provides 15 grams of protein, which can be added to anything from smoothies, to baked goods to cereal. Vegans with a family history of diabetes or personal history of weight issues, by the way, are better served by choosing protein-fortified smoothies over juice. Growing Naturals products can help you make that switch without sacrificing your love of all those healthy fruits and vegetables!
2. Where is my vitamin D coming from, and have I had enough?
You will have to make a very conscious effort to get enough of this vitamin. The best way to obtain it is via enough direct sun exposure. Midday, in the summer is the best time to "harvest" sunlight onto directly exposed skin. According the National Institutes of Health, approximately 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen usually lead to sufficient vitamin D synthesis. There are various factors that may impact the amount of vitamin D your body makes from sun exposure. For example, sun screen, skin color, clothes, any clouds in the sky, the season, how far away from the equator you live, etc.
When sun exposure is insufficient, you can get vitamin D from foods or supplements. With regard to whole foods, mushrooms are pretty much the only vitamin D-containing vegan food. These are mushrooms that have been specifically treated with ultra-violet light. Otherwise, you can look for vitamin D fortified OJ, cereals, granola, soy-products or milk. Some non-dairy milks may also be vitamin D fortified. Adults require a minimum of 600 IU (international units) or 15 mcg of vitamin D each day.
3. Are my fats healthy?
If you are eating a lot of packaged, processed, prepared, or baked vegetarian food...be extra sure you are not inadvertently letting the pro-inflammatory fats sneak in. Remember, they tend to begin with the letters "s" and " c" -- soybean, safflower, sunflower, sesame, corn, cottonseed. Canola is the exception. Vegans are often blindsided here with salad dressings, baked goods, cookies, and chops.
Good fats include olive oil and canola oil. If it’s your sweet tooth that makes it hard to stay away from processed food, consider that adequate protein and the right balance of fats are very powerful tools for fighting sweet cravings. Try a Growing Naturals smoothie mid-afternoon and see what happens to those late-day urges to eat sugar and drink caffeine.
4. Am I getting DHA and EPA (marine omega-3)?
Yes, flax, chia, walnuts, and other foods contain omega-3, but they contain ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) which must then be converted to DHA and the conversion rate is typically very poor. You will either need to consume LOTS of ALA omega-3, or consider a marine algae supplement to be sure your intake of these two essential fatty acids is adequate.
If you’re fighting weight, sweet cravings, or insulin resistance, be sure you are getting DHA. It is found in marine algae. Don’t rely on veggie sources like green vegetables. While these are definitely healthy, the amount you would need to eat in order to depend on them for omega-3 is impractical.
5. Am I getting enough fruits and vegetables?
Ideally, these should be the vast majority of what you eat. You would be surprised at how many vegans there are, who do not like vegetables! You should be aiming for 2-3 cup servings PER MEAL. While juicing can help you hit the mark for some meals, keep in mind juicing will contain more calories, more sugar and ZERO fiber per gram versus whole vegetables. So aim to make most of your fruits and vegetables whole. Growing Naturals has a great team of chefs and nutrition specialists who love to create solutions to vegan and vegetarian issues. If you have favorite foods, but don’t know how to combine them with protein into something that works for you, let us know! We’ll get on it.