Vegetarian Nutrition Notes

Recent statistics reveal that about 4% of all Canadians eat a vegetarian diet. According to Dietitians of Canada, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a healthy alternative to standard meat-based eating styles for all age groups. While the traditional “food pyramid” guide may not give vegetarians enough information on how to assure adequate levels of certain nutrients, a new food guide for vegetarians illustrates how to go meatless nutritiously.

A variety of protein sources throughout the day can add up to meet protein needs. For children age eight and under and for adults, the new vegetarian food guide calls for five daily servings of protein-rich foods. Adolescents and teens should have six. These can be beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, other soy foods, vegetarian meat substitutes (such as veggie burgers), eggs or dairy products. While five servings may seem like a lot, relatively small amounts, such as a half-cup of beans, a quarter-cup of nuts, or one egg, count as one serving.

Meeting calcium needs is a concern for everyone, but this is especially true for vegetarians who don’t eat dairy products. The new food guide’s group of “calcium-rich foods” includes protein-rich foods (soymilk and soy nuts), as well as vegetables, fruits and grains.

It is important to note that vegetables such as book coy, kale and mustard greens count as calcium-rich foods, but not all dark greens do. Spinach, beet greens and Swiss chard are high in calcium, but their high levels of oxalate bind calcium and reduce its absorption. While these veggies may help meet calcium needs, most people will need other good calcium sources.

The new food guide also lists vital additional recommendations, such as including at least three good sources of vitamin B-12 daily. Those who don’t consume enough dairy products, eggs, fortified soymilk, cereal or nutritional yeast may need a B-12 supplement.

Moreover, people need soymilk, cereal fortified with vitamin D, or a supplement with D to preserve bone health, if they don’t have dairy regularly or lack adequate sun exposure.

The food guide also highlights our need for healthy fats. Omega-3 fats, important for heart health and possibly cancer prevention, can be low in the diet without fish, eggs or sea vegetables. The guide calls for two servings daily of omega-3 sources, such as flaxseed or flaxseed oil, canola or soybean oil, or walnuts.

“A New Food Guide for North American Vegetarians” provides detailed guidance for people who want to plan healthy meatless meals and diets. It can be accessed for free at www.dietitians.ca/resources/index.html through the Dietitians of Canada web site.

“Nutrition Notes” is provided as a public service by the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1759 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009