Plants V.S. Animals

How important is meat?

How to be a Healthy Vegetarian

Vegetarian diets are becoming popular. Studies on vegetarian diets suggest many health benefits, such as cancer prevention and weight loss, making them very appealing to population. What these studies do not do is instruct people on how to eat a proper vegetarian diet. This article will provide guidance and an outline to eating a nutritionally adequate vegetarian diet. Although these diets are rising in popularity, social eating still involves a lot of meat dishes. Some tips for sticking to a vegetarian diet on social outings are also given.

We are our bodies and our bodies house us. The body is essential to life and it is a biological masterpiece. It is the one we have to live in for the rest of our lives. It is the one we have been using thus far in our lives. With it, we are able to interact with this world, affecting everyone and everything around us, no matter how small or intentional the impact. We are also in direct control of this body. We cut the hair it sprouts, trim the nails it grows, pop the pimples it forms. What goes on underneath the hair and skin may not be as noticeable, but we also have a lot of control over what happens there. How much sleep we get, how much we exercise, how much water we drink, what kind of social interactions we have, and what kind of foods we consume are all products of our decisions. These decisions can lead to a healthy body that serves our needs and desires, or they can lead to a sickly body that holds us back from life.

Our bodies work for us 24/7, 365. Because of this constant work it needs to be fueled every few hours during the day. The kind of fuel we decide to feed it makes a great impact what output the body will give us. What and how to nourish oneself is one of the great debates of mankind. What kinds of foods allow for greatest cognitive development? What diet should an athlete be on to help them break world records and win championships? Which foods cut the risk of cancer? Which foods help fight cancer? What we eat can make the difference between a fruitful life and a painful one.

Nutrition is extremely important, but because we have to eat everyday on so many occasions, it becomes easy to fall into a routine. It is simple to have cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a frozen meal for dinner. We feel full and then move on to what we think is more important. This also applies to vegetarians.

Vegetarian diets have been hyped up by the media as healthier, with many benefits. While it is true, according to many studies, that vegetarian diets offer health benefits, the reports of these studies by the media do not come with instructions for how to nourish each individual on a vegetarian diet. The media will report that these diets void in meat can help weight loss, prevent heart disease, fight cancer, etc., but leave people with only this impression. It is then easy to conclude that cutting out meats will reduce the risk or even make one immune to many ailments altogether. This sounds too good to be true, and it is.

Eating fruits and vegetables will make you smile maniacally.

Cutting meat for the diet so abruptly disrupts the body’s balance. The resourceful body will have worked with meat as a fuel for so long, becoming a master of manipulating it, that it would malfunction with a sudden disruption of meat intake. This is where cravings and our tendency towards routine come in.

Eating fruits and vegetables may seem like an easy task at first, but then a sort of taste boredom sets in. Cravings for that umami taste sensation will increase. They will be somewhat satisfied by salty fatty foods, which a majority of are processed foods. These processed foods are often cheap, have long shelf life, and require minimal preparation, unlike the quick to spoil plant foods. Now the routine still involves cereal, sandwich, and a frozen meal, but without any meats. French fries, cakes, pastries, soda, etc. are all meatless. This is the trap that many people will fall into when starting a vegetarian diet.

Besides health, people will also be drawn toward a vegetarian diet for ethical, financial, environmental, and religious/philosophical reasons, but they are still susceptible to the trap. The body simply wants to combat any sudden disruptions to its state of homeostasis. The switch to a vegetarian diet is always unsuccessful if one does not know how to keep the body in balance.

Guidelines for vegetarian diets are out there, but the reasons for becoming vegetarian should also coincide with a lead to this information. The guidelines to vegetarianism need to be publicized as often as the traditional USDA food pyramids for omnivorous diets are. The ADA (American Dietetic Association) has stated that a vegetarian diet can be nutritionally sufficient for all stages of life:

It is the position of the 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. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. (Position 1)

The key words in the statement are “appropriately” and “well-planned.”  By planning a vegetarian diet they mean making sure the diet is “nutritionally adequate” for an individual’s needs. Guidelines are not the end all be all of nutrition, so they should be adjusted based on each individual’s experience. Each person has to test what works for them, but the ADA gives a list of nutrients to monitor so as to point prospective and current vegetarians in the right direction.

The main nutrients vegetarians need to be aware of are protein, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, Calcium, Zinc, N-3 fatty acids, and iodine. According to studies analyzed by the ADA in their position paper on vegetarianism, vegetarians are susceptible to deficiencies in these nutrients.


Where do vegetarians get their protein? This is a very traditional concern for vegetarian diets. Protein helps build and keep muscles and red blood cells healthy. It supports growth and regeneration throughout life. Plants actually contain all the proteins that we know of that our body needs. In the past it was thought that plant foods needed to be combined at every meal to create all the essential proteins we need in our bodies, but that had since been proven incorrect. The ADA states that:

Plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults; thus, complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal. (Position 2).

Dietitians still recommend vegetarians try to consume more protein than recommended to make sure enough protein is absorbed from foods. Recommended foods that contain protein for vegetarians are:

  • -Soy and soy products like tofu and fortified soy drinks.
  • -Meat alternatives like textured vegetable protein (TVP) and veggie burgers.
  • -Dried beans, peas and lentils like kidney, black and white beans, chickpeas and black-eyed peas and red, brown and green lentils.
  • -Grains, nuts and seeds.

From “Eating Guidelines for Vegetarians” – Dietitians of Canada


Simply put, iron helps blood cells carry oxygen all over the body. Plant foods contain only nonheme iron. This just means the type of iron is not as easily absorbed by the blood as iron in animal products. The best way to make iron from plants more easily absorbable is to eat fruits and vegetables that are acidic and contain vitamin C. Foods like oranges, kiwis, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, etc. all enhance iron absorption. Anemia, a type of iron deficiency, is just as common in vegetarians as non-vegetarians (Position 3). Iron deficiency is not as large of a problem because our bodies can adapt to lower intakes of iron over time, by increasing the efficiency of absorption. Vegetarian foods that are good sources of iron are:

  • -Soy and soy products like firm or extra firm tofu and fortified soy drinks.
  • -Meat alternatives like textured vegetable protein (TVP) and veggie burgers.
  • -Dried beans, peas and lentils like kidney, pinto and adzuki beans, chickpeas and black-eyed peas, and red, brown and green lentils.
  • -Fortified grain products, nuts and seeds like almonds and sesame seeds.
  • -Fruits like prunes, raisins and apricots and dark green vegetables like collards, okra and bok choy.
  • -Blackstrap molasses.

From “Eating Guidelines for Vegetarians” – Dietitians of Canada

Vitamin B12

This is one of the most controversial concerns for vegetarians. Vitamin B12 helps the body create red blood cells and helps the body use fats. Vegetarian diets are very rich in folacin, a nutrient that functions much like vitamin B12, so symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiencies are often masked for long amounts of time (Position 4). This is why it is important to eat enough foods with vitamin B12 to prevent any permanent damage from a hidden deficiency.  Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can obtain vitamin B12 from dairy foods, but vegans must eat vitamin B12 fortified foods or use a daily supplement (Position 4). The general consensus is that plant foods do contain vitamin B12, but they are not as readily absorbed by the body as animal sources of vitamin B12. Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 are:

  • -Red Star nutritional yeast.
  • -Fortified soy and other fortified non-dairy drinks.
  • -Fortified meat alternatives like TVP and veggie burgers.

From “Eating Guidelines for Vegetarians” – Dietitians of Canada


Vegans are the most susceptible to a calcium deficiency. Calcium helps bones grow and stay strong, as well as helps muscles to contract, including the heart muscles. Fruits and vegetables help stop the body from using the bones as a source of calcium, breaking the bones down in the process, but a good outside source of calcium is needed in the first place. Calcium is found in many foods, including many vegetables;

  • -Fortified soy drinks and products like soy yogurts and calcium-set tofu.
  • -Soybeans, navy beans and white beans.
  • -Nuts and nut products like almonds and almond butter.
  • -Seeds and seed products like sesame seeds and their butter (tahini).
  • -Blackstrap molasses.
  • -Vegetables such as bok choy, okra, collard greens and turnip greens.
  • -Fruits like figs and fortified orange juice.

From “Eating Guidelines for Vegetarians” – Dietitians of Canada

Omega-3 fat

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for eye, nerve, and brain development, and help prevent heart disease. Fish and eggs are big sources of these fats, but there are many more vegetarian sources:

  • -Oils like canola, flax seed, walnut and soybean.
  • -Ground flax seed.
  • -Soybeans, tofu and walnuts.

What foods and how much should be eaten in general? Basically, just substitute meats for fruits, vegetables, and grains. For example, the USDA “myplate” protein section just needs to be filled with beans, legumes, and nuts, instead of meats and other animal products. For vegans, the dairy section will instead include more fruits and vegetables and a vitamin B12 supplement.

“Myplate” by the USDA

The vegetarian food pyramid below gives a more specific idea of what foods and how much foods to eat to have a balanced diet, based on the advice given by the ADA in their position paper.

Vegetarian Food Pyramid by: Madeleine Price Ball

Social lives often revolve around food. Family dinners, dates, parties, movie nights, game days etc. all involve food. Typical foods at these gatherings include hamburgers, hotdogs, steak, wings, roasts, etc. It may be difficult at first to stick to a vegetarian diet with much of society still basing meals around meat, but it gets easier every time. Here are some tips for keeping your vegetarian diet from affecting your social life:

  • – Have a strong reason for your vegetarian diet. Whether it’s for your health, ethical reasons, or whatever reason, having a sturdy reason for becoming vegetarian will make it easier to remind yourself of the reason.
  • -Find and test vegetarian recipes that appeal to you. There are many recipes out there that will match any meat dish in deliciousness. You can bring these dishes to gatherings, making sure you will have something to eat, as well as showing others how good vegetarian dishes can be.
  • -You can also just substitute the meat in any meat dish with a meat alternative. Veggie burgers, tempeh, tofu, etc. are all easy and healthy substitutions for meats.
  • -Realize that not all dishes contain meat. It may seem weird at first, but it is possible to eat just sides for a meal. For example, at Thanksgiving, fill your plate with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, salad, bread rolls, etc. and you won’t even notice you never had turkey. You may also have more room for apple pie, pumpkin pie, and all those delicious desserts.

Check out these articles for more tips:

To be a healthy vegetarian, eat a variety of foods. Everyone has different nutritionally requirements and different exclusions in their vegetarian diet. More research is always recommended for each individual to make sure the diet covers all of the body’s needs. As for the social aspect of vegetarianism, stay strong, and realize there are always alternatives.


Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association [serial online]. July 2009;109(7):1266-1282. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed June 26, 2013.

Read the whole paper here.

Eating Guidelines for Vegans. Dietitians of Canada. Accessed July 2, 2013.


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