Vegetarianism

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Becoming a vegetarian — Columbia Health resources?

Dear Future Veggie,

Yes, absolutely! Columbia Health has lots of resources for you as you prepare to make the switch. When planning out a healthy vegetarian diet, it is certainly helpful to have some guidance. The get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating provides a ton of great information on making healthy food choices as a vegetarian or vegan. Columbia students can also meet with a registered dietitian through Columbia Health. Before meeting with a professional, it may be helpful to do some background research. Check out the related questions below for a plethora of useful information!

It's a great idea to plan consciously when switching over to a vegetarian diet. Not eating meat can offer many health benefits, as well as addressing environmental and ethical concerns. However, people who make the change without learning about proper nutrition can very easily become deficient in certain nutrients, experience undesired weight gain or loss, and fall into the famous trap of becoming a "pasta" vegetarian who lives on carbs and sweets and not much else.

Have you thought about to what degree of vegetarianism you will pledge? There are many variations on the vegetarian diet, including: lacto-ovo, vegetarians who avoid all meat but eat milk and eggs; pescatarians, who eat fish, and do not eat other types of meat; vegans, who avoid all animal products including milk, eggs, and even honey (produced by bees); raw foodists, who eat only raw fruits, veggies, sprouted nuts and grains; and even fruititarians, who only eat fruits, nuts, and seeds. Wherever you fall on the vegetarian spectrum, here are some general tips on converting to a vegetarian diet:

  • Plan to incorporate into your diet a wide variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and of course leave room for some decadent delights (think: vegan triple chocolate cake).
  • Ensure that you are eating adequate amounts of non-meat proteins, necessary for long-term sustained energy, and to repair and replace worn-out body cells. High protein veggie foods include beans, nuts (including peanuts and almonds), and milk.
  • Vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron, and zinc are other nutrients important to pay attention to, as they are abundantly found in meat, but not as easy to find in plant foods. Some strategizing with a nutritionist or educating yourself about vegetarian sources for these nutrients will help you make sure you're getting enough of these important nutrients.
  • Because vegetarian diets are often high in fiber, remember to drink lots of water to ensure all that roughage is moving through and out of your system efficiently. Six to eight glasses per day is the general recommendation.

When planning a vegetarian diet, it is important to take into consideration a number of variables, such as body size, activity level, health status, and food preferences. But standing behind your ethical beliefs with the food you take in and the industries you support is an admirable and worthwhile undertaking. With the right guidance, education, and support, you could enjoy great health, a happy and clean conscience, and the joy of being an inspiration and teacher for others who wish to join you!

Alice

Vegetarian — Can't wake up in the morning

Dear Not worried...just curious,

If your diet is leaving you drowsy, it may be related to not eating enough calories — especially since many vegetarian foods tend to be relatively low-calorie. Eating too few calories would leave your body without enough energy to "get up and go" in the morning. To increase your calorie intake, try buying a variety of nuts, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc.), and dried fruits to make your own trail mix: each day, put about one cup into a bag and carry it with you to snack on. Besides added calories, you will also be getting a good source of vitamins, minerals, and some protein into your diet.

At meal times, include healthy size portions of grains (whole wheat, brown rice, oats, barley, buckwheat, etc.), vegetables, fruit, and legumes (dried beans and peas), and use a moderate amount of vegetable oil (canola and olive are good choices) for cooking. If you eat eggs and dairy, they can also serve as a great source of protein, calcium, and added calories.

In terms of exercise, aim for about 30 minutes of aerobic activity five or more times a week to get cardiovascular and energy-boosting benefits. Exercise in excess of about one hour of aerobic activity, five or more times a week, should be reserved for those training for a competitive sport (and who are eating higher-calorie diets!). High levels of exercise increase the risk of sports-related injury and may make it harder to take in a sufficient amount of calories.

Even if you think you sleep the right number of hours, keep in mind that some people, particularly college-aged people, require up to ten hours of sleep a night. Other sleep habits might also give you problems; for example, it's important to try to go to bed and wake up at close to the same time each day. Although this may seem nearly impossible on a student schedule, try to get on an even keel to start off the semester. If you wake up at 11:00 AM most days and get up for an 8:00 AM class two days a week, you most likely will feel like you never quite wake up on the two early days, even if your total amount of sleep is adequate. You may want to adjust your routine so that you go to bed early enough to wake up at the same time each day (weekends included), and see if your tiredness improves. If you feel overly exhausted or your drowsiness is interfering with school and life activities, you may want to consider seeing your health care provider.

Good luck getting up and at 'em!

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Student Health Service (CUMC)


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 for Healthier Eating.

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 care provider or a regsitered dietitian 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 registered dietitian.

Happy eating!

Alice

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