Vegetarianism

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Non-meat proteins

Dear Veggie,

As vegetarianism, veganism, and even just eating less meat become more popular dietary and lifestyle choices for a growing number of people, adequate protein sources are always a topic of discussion. There have been scores of arguments about protein in all its facets: how much you need, what kinds are most useful to the body, and how to prepare it. But what it comes down to is: every body is different, has different needs, and digests foods uniquely, so the best non-meat sources of protein for one person might be the worst for someone else.

The recommended daily protein intake for healthy adults is about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. Vegans (those who avoid all animal products, including dairy and eggs) may require a bit more at 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. Protein facilitates growth, metabolism, immune system functioning, repair, muscle contraction, and the transmission of nerve impulses and hormones in the body. It can also be a source of energy when the body runs out of carbohydrates and fat for fuel. And protein's not that hard to find, even for vegetarians. Almost every food contains protein: nuts, seeds, beans, soy products (tofu, soy milk, tempeh), grains (wheat, oats, rice), eggs, and dairy products all being excellent vegetarian sources (many of which tend to be low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium).

The list below gives the protein content of some of the highest protein and/or most popular vegetarian foods:

  • Tempeh — 1 cup — 31 g
  • Lentils — 1 cup — 18 g
  • Chickpeas — 1 cup — 15 g
  • Tofu (firm) — 4 oz — 11 g
  • Peanut butter — 2 tbsp — 8 g
  • Soymilk — 1 cup — 7 g
  • Soy yogurt — 1 cup — 6 g
  • Whole wheat bread — 2 slices — 7 g
  • Broccoli, cooked — 1 cup — 4 g

Protein is a macronutrient made up of smaller parts, called amino acids. There are different amino acids, many of which the body can produce, but nine which the body cannot. These nine must be eaten, and are therefore called essential. Animal proteins contain all nine of these essential amino acids in appropriate proportions, while the proteins found in plants often do not. Plant-based sources of protein have various amounts of amino acids in them. As such, it was previously thought that certain ‘complimentary proteins’ or combinations of plant-based proteins were needed in order to get all essential amino acids. However, rather than planning specific food combos at each meal, eating a variety of plant-based proteins over the course of a day should ensure that you get the essential amino acids you need.

You might find it helpful to consult with a registered dietitian if you want a more specific evaluation of your diet and unique nutritional needs. Columbia students can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to schedule an appointment. There is also a wealth of information online about vegetarian recipes, philosophies, and nutritional facts about specific foods.

People decide to eat less meat or no meat for myriad reasons that include health, animal rights, environmental sustainability, and religion. You can rest assured that your decision will further any or all of these goals without depriving you of the protein you need. Enjoy!

Alice

Vegetarian - vitamin B-12 deficient?

Dear Animal Lover,

Vitamin B-12 is important in the formation of nerve cells and red blood cells. It is not found in significant amounts in any plant foods, so vegetarians need to be conscious about diet in order to get sufficient amounts. Both vegetarians and vegans (people who avoid all animal products: meat, eggs, dairy, honey, leather, silk, etc.) have various options for obtaining sufficient amounts of vitamin B-12. For vegetarians, milk, yogurt and eggs supply plenty of B-12. Fortified cereals, fortified soy beverages, or fortified meat substitutes are options for vegans or vegetarians as well. Many vitamin supplements also contain B-12. Consuming 5 micrograms per day is recommended. As with all vitamins and minerals, having a diverse diet helps the body obtain what it needs from a variety of sources. Pregnant and breast-feeding women need to be especially conscientious about consuming sufficient amounts of B-12, as the developing fetus and nursing baby draw from the mother's store of the vitamin.

Although some seaweed, yeast and soy products advertise that they contain B-12,  there are actually two forms of B-12, active and inactive. Unless these foods are fortified with an active form of B-12 (cyanocobalamin or hydroxocobalamin), they will not serve as significant sources of useful B-12.

Signs of B-12 deficiency may take months or years develop. They include anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Long-term effects may be neurological changes such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Additional signs of B-12 deficiency are difficulty in maintaining balance, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue. But be advised that these can also be symptoms of many different ailments, so having a blood test from a doctor like your friend did can help with diagnosis.

If your friend is a Columbia student and wants more information, she may want to make an appointment with a nutritionist at Health Services x4-9840.

Happy healthy eating!

Alice

Vegetarian — Hair loss?

Dear Where's my hair?

You can expect to normally lose between 100-200 strands of hair each day. If your hair is coming out by the handfuls however, you do have cause to worry and should see a physician for a complete medical workup. A large loss of hair can indicate more serious bodily malfunctions. Stress can also be implicated as a cause of hair loss, and if things have been extra stressful for you lately, you might want to see a counselor to help you reduce your stress levels.

If your hair loss is more moderate, you are right that your nutrition and diet have a lot to do with it. Zinc is an important mineral for your hair, and a deficiency would probably show up as excessive hair loss, lack of sheen, and difficulty with control. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for zinc in adult men is 11 mg, and for adult women the RDA is 8 mg. A  zinc supplement might help you here, but consult your health provider before starting one. Zinc is found naturally in beans, seeds and nuts, legumes, milk, and wheat bran and germ. Also, in terms of your vegetarianism, you might very well be taking in insufficient levels of vitamin B-12. This is somewhat common among vegetarians, and the results of a deficiency include dandruff, scaling, and hair loss. Most of the naturally occurring B-12 is in animal products, but can also be found in nutritional yeast and sometimes in fermented soy products (i.e. tempeh). For adult women, the RDA for B-12 is 2.4 mcg. For adult men, the RDA is 2.4 mcg. Read Vegetarian — B-12 deficient for more information on vegetarians and B-12 deficiencies.

If updates to your eating plan don't seem to help, perhaps a visit with your health care provider is the next step.  S/he can run some tests to check for a number of other possible options. If you are a Columbia student, you may consider a visit with a Registered Dietitian. Never fear, hope is not lost.  Happy eating and a speedy solution to your concerns.

Alice

How to stop being a vegetarian/start eating meat?

Dear J,

Rejoining the ranks of the omnivorous need not mean you make major shifts in your current vegetarian diet, assuming that your current diet is reasonably well-balanced and contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Most recommendations about transitioning from a vegetarian diet to one that includes meat suggest slowly adding in easy-to-digest, lean meats, while continuing to eat vegetarian staples.

Fish is an excellent first step. Fish, especially salmon, trout, herring, and sardines (in general, cold-water fish with small bones) is a great source of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids, and fish isn't as hard for the body to break down and digest as more dense, fattier meats. Choosing the right fish has become trickier as concerns about mercury levels (a toxin), overfishing of wild stocks, and aqua-farming practices increase. Check out the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program to learn more about sustainable and healthy choices for getting your fish fix.

Lean meats, such as poultry (white meat and skinless are the leanest poultry choices), lean cuts of beef and pork, and ground meats with the least percentage of fat, are also good sources of protein and iron. These should be at least 90 percent lean. Again, when adding poultry and meats back into your diet, you may want to consider issues of sustainability when buying. Some issues to consider include whether the animals were free-range, raised without hormones or antibiotics, or grass-fed.

Like any meat-eater, you may want to use caution when considering processed meats like ham, sausage, hot dogs, and packaged lunch meats, as they're often loaded with preservatives and sodium. However, if you find a trustworthy brand or deli, these are a convenient and easy way to incorporate meat into your diet once your body has had a while to get used to the leaner meats. Turkey, roast beef, and low-fat varieties of luncheon meats tend to have less fat than bologna or salami. With the addition of meat to your diet comes increased cholesterol and saturated fat. Fatty or red meats, egg yolks, and full-fat dairy are high in both cholesterol and saturated fat. Everyone, not just those transitioning from vegetarianism, should be mindful of how much cholesterol and saturated fat they're consuming.

Finally, just because you are adding meat to your diet, remember that your vegetarian favorites like grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are still an important part of your eating plan. These are all important sources of vitamins, minerals, fibers, proteins, and enzymes. You mentioned that you were a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means you have been eating eggs and dairy. These animal products are great sources of protein and other nutrients and can be included in your diet along with everything else.

The USDA considers fish, meat, legumes, and beans to be in the same food group. The recommended daily amount one should eat from this group depends on age, sex, and level of physical activity; however, typically a serving from the protein group is 3 to 4 ounces. As you can see, meat doesn't need to be eaten in huge portions to meet your protein requirements and, you don't need to eat it every day. Making the change to an omnivorous diet slowly, with continued use of the vegetarian foods you were accustomed to eating, can help avoid shocking your system with a sudden onslaught of new foods.

Columbia students who would like more nutrition guidance can make an appointment with a Registered Dietician by calling Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Center (CUMC campus). Enjoy the vast array of new options you have in meal planning and restaurant choices, and don't forget to eat your vegetables, even in the midst of meat-eating bliss!

Alice

Fish-less omega-3 fatty acids

Dear Reader,

Yes, there certainly are! Good sources include:

  • Canola and olive oils.
  • Walnuts.
  • Ground flaxseed.
  • Tofu.
  • Leafy green veggies.

There are three main types of omega-3s. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are mainly found in fish, whereas alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found elsewhere. Good sources of ALA include vegetable oils (such as soybean or canola), nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts). You could try adding some walnuts and flaxseed into your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie, and use vegetable oil for cooking or in a salad dressing to top off a leafy veggie. Try using canola oil to make a vegetable stir fry with tofu. Tahini, which is made with sesame seeds, is a great source of omega-3s and can be used to make sauces and dips, such as hummus. For more information about nutrition, check out the Get Balanced Guide to Healthier Eating as well as the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Omega-3s fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for numerous body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and normal brain function. Omega-3s have been shown to help prevent heart disease and possibly stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis due to anti-inflammatory properties, and could be protective against certain types of cancer and other conditions.

There is some debate on whether sources of ALA carry the same benefits as fish sources of EPA and DHA. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, but not everyone’s body does this well. If you’re not averse to making an exception to your vegetarianism for fish oil, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement and might want to speak with your health provider or a nutritionist before doing so. For questions about your specific individual nutritional needs, Columbia students can make an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to speak with a healthcare provider or nutritionist.

Happy eating!

Alice

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