These days, it’s becoming more and more common to avoid meat, but if you’ve chosen a vegetarian or pescetarian diet, it is very important to know which nutrients are missing from your diet in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
I grew up in Texas, where a vegetarian is about as common as a unicorn, but throughout my life travels, I’ve befriended many herbivores. I knew that some professional climbers, like Alex Honnold and Heather Weidner, avoided meat, but I didn’t understand just how many people avoided meat until I visited Boulder – the nucleus of organic produce, gluten-free menus, composting, and fresh farmer’s markets.
Each person has a different reason for the lifestyle change; some hate the meat packing industry, others want to preserve the environment, and others just feel better without it. But whatever your reason for avoiding meat, let’s take a look at what every vegetarian (and vegan) should know.
Problems with digestion
People often feel better when avoiding meat and dairy because they are known as “high residue” foods. This means that they take a very long time for the body to digest and often require extra enzymes and stomach acid to break them down.
On the other hand, low residue foods (like fruits and vegetables) are easily recognized, broken down, and utilized by the body. For these reasons, I can understand why meat doesn’t sit well with some people.
Most people tend to have low stomach acid and digestive enzymes, making it difficult to break down high-protein foods like meat. So, if you want to eat meat but have trouble digesting it, you should consider supplementing your diet with zinc (which can help boost stomach acid production) and digestive enzymes for 2-3 months.
Meat certainly has the potential to wreak havoc on the digestive system, but it is also packed full of nutrients. Meat contains vitamins B2, B6, and B12, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.
Deficiencies of these nutrients can lead to anemia, dermatitis, fatigue, reduced immune function, poor wound healing, and reduced ability to taste – the latter three signs all relating to a deficiency in zinc.
If you choose to avoid meat altogether, you can get your B2 from dried spices like ancho chilies and paprika, almonds, edamame, fish, sesame seeds, and sun-dried tomatoes.
You can get B6 from brown rice, chili powder, paprika, pistachios, raw garlic, fish, sunflower and sesame seeds, molasses, and hazelnuts.
For B12, you can eat other animal foods such as clams, oysters, caviar, octopus, fish, crab, lobster, and eggs. Vegans should consider B12 supplementation because the few plant sources of B12 (algae, chlorella, spirulina) have not been shown to correct B12 deficiencies.
B12 deficiencies can result in anemia and signs of impaired brain function, like poor memory, depression, and fatigue. Evidence has also linked B12 deficiency to Alzheimer’s disease, which is a common cause of dementia.
Alternative sources of iron include clams, oysters, pumpkin seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, fortified cereals, dark leafy greens, tofu, and dark chocolate.
Note that the plant sources of iron are more difficult for the body to absorb, so it is advisable to consume these foods with a source of vitamin C, as vitamin C increases the absorption of iron in the small intestine.
Phosphorus can be found in nuts and seeds, and zinc is prevalent in oysters, roasted pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, peanuts, and crab. As you can see, adding a few new foods to your daily routine can easily help you meet your nutritional needs as a vegetarian.
In terms of recovery from exercise, you will still want to aim for 20 grams of protein after a workout. You can meet this need with a protein bar of choice, a protein shake of choice, 3 ounces of fish, 3 hard-boiled eggs, 9 ounces of tofu, or 2 ounces of assorted nuts and seeds.
If you’re looking for a vegan protein powder, you might consider Gnarly Nutrition’s Vegan Feast, any brand of hemp protein powder, Sun Warrior, or Vega Sport. For an honest review about the Gnarly Vegan protein powder, click here.
It may take a little more planning, but following a vegetarian diet is very doable.
If you have any digestive issues (cramping, bloating, diarrhea, etc) when you eat meat or dairy, then you might find relief by supplementing your diet with daily zinc tablets and digestive enzymes with every meal for 2-3 months.
If you’re avoiding meat for any reason, make sure to compensate for the nutritional losses by increasing your intake of foods that contain:
- Niacin (B2)
- Pyridoxine (B6)
- Cobalamin (B12)
If you have specific questions about your diet, feel free to leave a comment below. As a dietitian, it is my job to help you achieve optimum nutrition according to your own beliefs, traditions, and views on food.
Originally posted on FiveTen