As my first successful week as a vegetarian comes to a close, I’ve decided I need to make some adjustments. After talking to a few other vegetarians, I think I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade.
1. Vegetarians are really supposed to replace meat with vegetables.
Not new, right? Surprisingly, most new vegetarians end up gaining weight rather than losing weight their first few weeks as a vegetarian. This goes against my earlier post on how cutting back meat may promote weight loss. The reason? Eating only vegetables won’t give you the satisfying feeling protein does after a meal so you load up on carbohydrates. Protein and carbohydrates do have the same number of calories/gram, however, in an attempt to feel full, people generally end up eating twice as much as if they would’ve just had the meat.
2. Don’t forget about protein.
Eating rich protein sources from soy products, beans, and legumes will help you feel satisfied after a meal and provide you with the protein your body needs.
Fun Fact: I ate Boca Vegetarian Sausage the other morning. It was awesome. I never used to eat real sausage before, so maybe I don’t know what I’m missing, but it’s worth a try if you’re looking for a healthier alternative to your favorite breakfast meat.
3. Listen to your body.
Not eating meat isn’t a sure fire way to being healthy. Meat has many essential amino acids and vitamins necessary to your body’s function. Fortunately, the body does store some of these essential nutrients, like B12. Most likely, if you’ve been eating meat your whole life, your body has built up B12 stores. Your newly vegetarian diet will still get the B12 it needs from your body’s stores for a long period of time (generally, 1-5 years). However, if you start feeling tired, short of breath, or experience palpitations, these could be symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency and you should see your doctor. Should your vegetarian lifestyle last longer than a few years, you may want to consider talking to your doctor or dietitian about a B12 supplement.
Another micronutrient to consider is Iron. Women are generally already deficient in Iron because of their monthly losses and general lesser meat consumption than men. Two types of iron exist: Heme iron (found in meat, poultry, and fish) and Non-Heme iron (found in nuts, grains, fruits, veggies, and tofu). Heme iron is better absorbed by the body (~20%) compared to non-heme iron (~2-10%), however, both forms can be better absorbed if eaten with an acidic food (high in vitamin C) such as oranges, tomatoes, or strawberries. This is important for vegetarians because they generally don’t eat foods rich in heme iron. Some iron is stored in the body as ferritin, but only for 2-3 days until it gets sloughed off with other mucosal cells. Because of this, it is important to regularly consume foods high in iron to prevent deficiency. Vegetarians can try foods like fish with lemon or a tomato and grain salad. Since I’ve just learned to enjoy fish, I’m aiming to eat at least 2 servings of fish/week to keep up with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans and to reap the benefits of iron.
Fun Fact: Vegetarians that only eat fish (and vegetables, fruits, and grains-of course) are called pescetarians.
But look out, when Fe needs exceed Fe absorption, Iron deficiency (ID) occurs. ID is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, as well as the most common deficiency in the United States. For men (19-70y), the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Iron is 8 mg and for women (19-50y), the RDA is 18mg. Women ages 51-70y have an RDA of 8mg. Deficiency symptoms include: fatigue, lightheadedness, impaired cognitive function, diminished work capacity, and inability to regulate body temperature. Should you start feeling any of these symptoms, meat-eater or not, talk to your doctor. I’m a big believer in getting as many nutrients from food sources (rather than pill sources) as possible, but if your Fe status is really suffering Fe supplements are available. Also, consider talking to your doctor or dietitian about a vegetarian supplement which will supply all necessary nutrients your diet may be lacking.
Check back often for more news on my new vegetarian lifestyle and my tips on living healthier.