November 4, 2009
It is the position of American Dietetic Association that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Research studies have also looked at vegetarian diets and physical activity, and have found that there is no available evidence to suggest that adopting such a diet negatively affects performance (the incredible accomplishment of individuals like Carl Lewis and Bill Pearl are testaments to that).
So then why are people still under the impression that vegetarian diets are inadequate or unsafe?
Many of the concerns individuals have regarding adopting a vegetarian diet stem from perpetuated misconceptions related to an assortment of issues, including adequate intake of protein, calcium and iron.
Myth: If you don’t eat meat, you won’t get enough protein.
Fact: Most vegetarians get enough protein from a variety of foods, especially rich sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds and soy products. On the other hand, many non-vegetarians in the United States actually consume excessive amounts of protein, which increases calcium loss and forces the kidneys to work harder.
Myth: You can’t get enough calcium if you don’t drink milk.
Fact: Individuals can acquire the recommended amount of calcium by eating a variety of foods each day, including dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, bok choy, collard greens, etc), almonds, legumes (e.g. black beans, pinto beans, etc), dried figs and broccoli.
Myth: Not eating red meat will lead to iron deficiency.
Fact: Vegetarians can get plenty of iron in their diets by consuming an adequate amount of iron-rich food options. Iron is found in an assortment of foods, including goji berries, nuts, seeds, lentils, lima beans, spinach, whole-grain and enriched breads and cereals, and some dried fruits. In addition to iron, plant-based options are a great source of fiber as well as other vitamins and minerals, and unlike meat sources they do not contain cholesterol or saturated fat.
Things to Keep in Mind
While adopting a well-balanced vegetarian diet is certainly possibly, there are a few things vegetarians should keep in mind when planning meals. To ensure adequate consumption of vitamin A and iron, vegetarians should increase the amount of dark-colored fruits and vegetables they eat each day. Vegetarians should also be aware of B-12 consumption. B-12 is only found in animal products and fortified foods, however vegetarians can consume foods such as certain breakfast cereals and veggie burgers that have been fortified, or they may opt to take a B-12 supplement to ensure that they are getting the recommended amount of this vitamin. The good news is that because B-12 can be stored in the body for several years, a deficiency takes quite some time to develop, and with a proper, well-varied diet the risk of doing so can be easily avoided.
Considering making the switch?
Before making the switch, it is important to first understand the various vegetarian diets out there, and choose one that is in line with your beliefs, preferences and desired goals. Working with a registered dietitian is a great option for making the process of “going veg” even easier.
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYTContributor
Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT is assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. As a leading fitness expert, writer and educator Jessica is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including Shape and Oprah.com. She holds a B.S. in physical education teacher education from Coastal Carolina University and M.S. in physical education from Canisius College. She is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as well as an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) through Yoga Alliance and trained stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga instructor. Prior to teaching at Miramar, Jessica worked full-time ACE, serving in a number of key roles including exercise physiologist, certification director and senior health and fitness editor. Her past work also includes serving as aquatics director at Conway Medical Wellness and Fitness Center and designing health and physical education curriculum for grades K-12. Full Bio Jessica Matthews »