It is easy to lose certain essential nutrients when transitioning to a meat free, or low meat diet. When a dieter is able to leave the meat off of the plate, there will be a reduced risk of heart attack and the risk of getting diabetes can be cut by 28%, according to Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D., Associate Editor, Nutrition for EatingWell Magazine.
The Mayo Clinic vegetarian diet page has descriptions of the various types of vegetarian diets and has a vegetarian food pyramid. The Mayo Clinic also has a heart healthy Mediterranean diet that offers less meat and allows fish and seafood. Finally the DASH diet is also recommended for a heart healthy eating plan.
Vegetarians diets may give more fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and unsaturated fat. But cutting out all meat and seafood can mean a loss of protein, iron, Vitamin B12, Zinc, Omega 3 Fats and Iodine.
As always, it is best to consult a nutritionist and the primary physician when making a drastic change to diet, especially when going completely vegan.
The good news is that there are ways to get these nutrients from a vegetarian diet.
According to Jennings, “Most people need between 0.36 and 0.45 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which works out to be about 60 grams for a 150-pound person.”
To get protein, the trick is in eating a variety of plant foods that contain amino acids. Since each plant tends to only have certain amino acids, it is best to have a wide variety of beans, eggs, nuts, seeds, dairy and soy as the protein food of choice, so that in the course of a day, all of the amino acids are covered.
There are so many types of beans and ways to prepare bean dishes that just about any preference or appetite can be satisfied.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies for humans. Iron comes from dark leafy greens like spinach, collards and kale. Beans, fortified breads and cereals, and raisins are also good sources of iron. This mineral helps to move oxygen from the lungs to the cells. Animal iron is called heme and plant iron is called non heme. When living on a meatless diet, it will take more plant iron to satisfy the daily requirement, but there are many plants and ways to prepare them that will fill the bill.
Vitamin B12 helps to convert food to energy. Dairy, eggs, and fortified cereals. Complete vegans who do not eat dairy or eggs will have to eat more fortified cereals in order to get enough vitamin B12, but do check the food labels to make sure that there is enough B12 in a serving.
To have enough Zinc, men need 11 milligrams per day and women need 8 milligrams per day. Zinc helps with growth and development, no matter what the age of the person and Zinc helps the immune system. With zinc from whole grains and cereals, along with Beans, yogurt, shiitake mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds, there should be something that a meat-free person can enjoy in order to get enough of this mineral.
Omega 3 fats are easy to get from seafood. DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fats that are important for eye and brain development and the heart. But if seafood or fish is not an option, there has to be some canola oil, soy, flax seed, chia or walnuts. These plant foods have ALA, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA, but only in small amounts. This can be a problem for people with nut allergies or who do not like the oils and seeds. Jennings recommends taking Algae based Omega 3 fat supplements too.
Iodine is also something that has to be replaced when meat is dropped from the shopping list. Iodine helps to promote thyroid health, and many complete vegans can develop a real deficiency. Iodine also comes from seafood and it is very important for non seafood eaters to get it from somewhere else. There are two good sources: Iodized salt and seaweed. It is important to buy iodized salt, because sea salt and some of the newly available exotic salts may not have enough iodine added to provide this nutrient.
In the end, by paying attention to the nutrients in plants, beans, salts, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs, seafood and oils and other non meat foods, a change to a meat free diet can be done without losing essential minerals.