Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci did it, and so did Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. All were vegetarians at some point in their lives, meaning they gave up meat, poultry and fish, and moved grains, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts to the center of the plate. The vegetarian category now includes about 2.5% of the adult American population, and the number is growing. Meat-free options are increasingly common in venues ranging from college dining halls to the most upscale restaurants. Yet it can be a challenge to take in all the nutrients required for optimal health while following a vegetarian diet. It's not as simple as merely cutting out meat and replacing it with soy or cheese -- vegetarians must be careful to eat a wide variety of healthful foods in order to meet all their dietary needs.
People choose to become vegetarians for a wide variety of reasons -- health, morality, ethics, religion, culture, economy, concern for the environment, etc. Degrees of vegetarianism vary... a strict vegan diet excludes all meat or animal products and fish... a lacto-vegetarian consumes plant foods and dairy products... and a lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats eggs and dairy products as well as plant foods. According to the American Dietetic Association, the lacto-ovo option is most popular among Americans.
For advice on how vegetarians can responsibly follow their principles while continuing to enhance their health, I consulted our own digestion guru, contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND. He told me, that overall, vegetarians need to focus on nutrients they may be lacking, such as protein, vitamin B-12, calcium and iron.
We build healthy muscles and organs from essential amino acids, which come from protein in the food we eat. Animal products are the most complete and readily accessible source of protein to the body, so vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products have little problem on this front. For the vegans among us, rich plant sources of protein include quinoa, buckwheat, peas, dried beans, lentils and whole soy products (eg, tofu and tempeh). Be careful, however -- overloading on whole soy products can have an estrogen-like effect on the body.
Not long ago, scientists believed that for the body to obtain all essential amino acids it was necessary to combine different plant proteins (such as beans and grains) in the same meal. The current thinking is you'll be just fine as long as you take in a wide variety of plant proteins throughout the day.
One of the most common nutritional deficiencies of all -- whether you eat meat or not -- is B-12. The body requires B-12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia, and the nervous system doesn't function well without it. According to Dr. Rubman, after a few years of a meatless diet, many vegetarians report they find themselves feeling somewhat dazed and clumsy. The reason: B-12 deficiency. Most humans store only two years or so of B-12, and once the supply is depleted, brain and nervous system function deteriorates.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid this problem because the best source of this vital nutrient is, once again, animal products, including milk, eggs and cheese. Other food sources of B-12 include fortified cereals and soy products, though these may not be properly balanced or sufficient for your needs. If testing finds that you are functionally deficient, your physician may prescribe sublingual B-12 tablets. Dissolved under the tongue, these tablets are as effective as B-12 shots and less expensive. According to Dr. Rubman, B-12 from a B-complex supplement may not be easily absorbed by the body -- particularly true in people with decreased or suppressed acid function (which happens in people who take proton pump inhibitors). Dr. Rubman's preferred sublingual B-12 vitamin is made by Intensive Nutrition and is completely free of all animal products (www.intensivenutrition.com/b12.htm).
Another possible result of a vegan diet is calcium deficiency. As an abundant mineral in the human body, calcium is required to maintain strong bones throughout life. It also helps you get a good night's sleep. Dairy products are the most commonly cited source of calcium, but as Dr. Rubman pointed out, these are difficult for many people to digest.
Other rich and readily digestible plant sources of calcium include broccoli, chickpeas, collard greens, kale, navy beans, white beans, tofu and calcium-enriched plant milks (such as rice, almond or soy). For calcium-deficient patients, Dr. Rubman often prescribes the dietary supplement Butyrex, made by T.E. Neesby. Note: Though these capsules are encased in gelatin made from animal products, this particular brand provides a form of calcium that is readily absorbed by the body. Strict vegetarians may choose to open the capsule and sprinkle the powder into applesauce or juice or something else that makes it easy to swallow.
Like B-12, iron is a vital component of red blood cells, as well as a primary carrier of oxygen in the blood. Inadequate iron intake often makes people feel tired and rundown. Meat is the best source of heme-iron, the kind most easily absorbed by the body, but there are also plenty of plant sources, including black-eyed peas, lentils, soybeans, kidney beans, spinach, whole wheat bread and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.
There are two basic rules to help the body more efficiently absorb plant sources of iron: First, combine them with foods that contain vitamin C, such as oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes and broccoli. Second, eat them separately from calcium supplements and tea and other dietary sources of tannins. Dr. Rubman says it is fine to get iron from a daily multivitamin supplement. However, because excess iron levels bring on serious medical problems, do not take iron supplements unless your doctor prescribes them.
If you're interested in trying a vegetarian diet, Dr. Rubman recommends that you do so under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. It's a harder way to plow the field, nutritionally speaking, he observes, but a properly balanced vegetarian diet can help you reap significant health benefits. The wider the variety of healthful foods you add to your daily diet, the more likely you are to meet all your nutritional needs.
Source: Andrew L. Rubman, ND, director, Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines, Southbury, Connecticut. www.naturopath.org.