BY DR. LYDIA THURTON
This week a Mum told me that she wanted her family to eat vegetarian. She wanted to do it properly, ensuring every family member had the nutrition they needed. I commended her. Anytime you make a significant change to your diet it should be done with thought and care. We each have unique nutritional needs.
I assured her that being vegetarian is a healthy choice. It’s good for the environment. With a lot of variety, vegetarian diets reduce inflammation, promote longevity and can even be spiritual. But not everyone does vegetarian well.
Done poorly vegetarian diets are carbohydrate heavy and repetitive. Carbohydrate diets promote belly fat and sluggishness. Vegetarian diets done poorly often lack variety. When you repeat foods over and over and over again it promotes food sensitivities and irritates your immune system.
Many of the nuts, seeds, legumes and grains that are staples in vegetarian diets contain protein that causes food sensitivities. Soy as well. If you are changing your diet it is an excellent idea to get your food sensitivities tested. The test isn’t perfect, but it does give you a window into how your immune system reacts to specific food items. It can also indicate if you are getting enough variety. There are vegetarian food sensitivity panels that omit meat and include expanded lists of grains and legumes.
I have a number of vegetarian patients that avoid soy. They’ve heard warnings of hormone disruption and genetically modified ingredients. Soy contains phytoestrogens which are different than the estrogen the human body makes but chemically related. Honestly, the research is conflicting. Some studies say soy protects your heart and reduces cancer risk and some studies say it can promote cancer and reduce brain function as you age. I say, eat moderate quantities of a non-genetically modified soy. And choose fermented soy, like tempeh, it has more nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is not found in ANY plant foods. Not nutritional yeast. Not spirulina or blue green algae. Vegetarians get B12 in dairy and eggs. If you are vegan you need to consume foods that are fortified with B12, like some nut milks or you need a B12 shot or tablet. B12 wards off depression, helps you make red blood cells, keeps your heart healthy and is essential for women considering pregnancy.
Some vegetarian diets are simply too carbohydrate heavy to be healthy. Especially refined, processed carbohydrates like pasta and breads. This is particularly the case for teenage girls that decide to go vegetarian. Inexperienced vegetarianism boarders on an eating disorder. Very limited diets of pasta and cheese and toast are not what it means to be vegetarian. If you don’t like vegetables, do do vegetarianism.
There are nutrition trackers online that can help you determine if you are eating enough protein. If you change to a vegetarian diet track what you eat and input it in a nutrition calculator. Calculate protein. You need at least 0.8g/kg of your body weight. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to find your weight in kilograms. If the amount of protein determined by the calculator does not equal the amount you need based on your body weight you need to eat more. Hummus, hemp seeds, lentils, or even a vegan protein powder in your diet can make all the difference.