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 you may have regarding eating animals. However, before making the switch to a meat-free lifestyle, it is important to get a sense of the pros and cons.
Here’s the best news of all: with a well-planned diet, vegetarians can live a totally healthy lifestyle and help contribute to a better planet. The following list describes various benefits of vegetarianism:
- Plant foods are abundant in nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and protein. They also contain phytochemicals — plant chemicals that are not essential to life, but may help protect against disease — such as beta-carotene. Eating a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables can help ensure that the benefits nature provides are reaped.
- Reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians benefit from eating less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, certain minerals, and phytochemicals. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods, so vegan diets are completely cholesterol-free.
- Contribute to the vegetarian cause! Whether you have aim to respect animals, lessen your carbon footprint on the environment, or just want to make a lifestyle change, as a vegetarian you are making your own positive impact on the world. You can be proud that you are living according to the beliefs that you stand for.
Whenever you cut a food group out of your diet, it is important to understand how to replace the vital nutrients that go along with it. While the positives are all fine and dandy, it is important to be aware of the challenges of being a vegetarian:
- It can be harder to get the protein you need. Protein is important formaintaining and repairing muscle tissue, and manufacturing blood cells, antibodies, hormones, and enzymes. Fortunately, there are plenty of non-meat proteins to supplement your diet.
- Possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies can develop without a balanced eating plan. Cutting out dairy, meat, fish, and poultry reduces your intake of vitamin B12 (important for nerve transmission and necessary for life), calcium (for strong bones, among other functions), iron (for blood), and zinc (for immunity and healing), just to name a few.
- Depending on where you live, it may be challenging to adhere to a meat-free lifestyle. For example, living in a big city may provide you with endless veggie options, while a small-town lifestyle may make it more difficult to find healthy substitutions for meat.
- You may have difficulty explaining your eating habits to family and friends.While it may seem that being a vegetarian is relatively mainstream, certain cultures leave little room for herbivores. You may encounter some sticky situations where people have prepared for you a meaty meal, or perhaps, your friends and family may challenge your decision to remain meat-free.
Remember, what is included in your diet (rather than what is excluded) is what counts. It is extremely important to incorporate a balanced eating plan full of nutrient-rich foods. For help in selecting a healthy eating plan appropriate for your state of health, age, size, activity level, preferences, and moral and ethical values, consult with a registered dietitian. Columbia students can make an appointment with a registered dietician at Medical Services through Open Communicator or by calling (212) 854-7426. Informed choices are the best choices!
February 23, 2012507783
RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), prepared by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, have been around for over 50 years, with periodic updates. The RDA is the average daily dietary intake level that would adequately meet the nutritional needs of nearly all (98 percent) healthy persons. RDAs include nutrients for which there is sufficient scientific evidence that they are required for good health. Their intention has always been to establish "standards to serve as a goal for good nutrition." RDAs provide the basis for evaluating the adequacy of diets of population groups. They are set at a level that includes a safety factor appropriate to each nutrient; so, this level actually exceeds the requirement for most individuals.
The Food and Nutrition Board has established Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). In addition to RDAs, DRIs include recommendations for food components for which RDAs cannot be established. Some of these include fat, carbohydrate, fiber, and plant estrogens, among others. DRIs also include maximum intake levels. Three dietary intake reference values for DRIs are:
- Adequate Intake — the dietary intake level that would adequately sustain health when an RDA cannot be determined because of insufficient scientific evidence.
- Estimated Average Requirement — the estimated dietary intake level that would maintain the health of half of a specified age and sex group.
- Tolerable Upper Intake Level — the maximum level of daily nutrient intake that's apparently safe and unlikely to cause negative health effects in most healthy individuals.
DRIs and RDAs are not developed for specific individuals, but are for the making of policies for feeding programs, food labeling, and food fortification. The numbers signify levels of each compound that are appropriate for most healthy people in each category. To access information on RDAs and DRIs, check out the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Information Center website.
Vitamin supplements may contain an amount equivalent to the RDA for DRI, but you'll probably not find a supplement with every imaginable nutrient, vitamin, and mineral. There are innumerable substances that keep us healthy, many of which cannot be packaged in a pill. In addition, many nutrients are difficult for the body to absorb when they come in pill form. Obtaining nutrients directly from a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is still the recommended manner of giving your body all it needs to be healthy.
To assess whether your current diet is filled with nutrients, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov. You can also speak with your health care provider about whether you need a multivitamin or if the food you eat is sufficient. Students at Columbia can also make an appointment to speak with a registered dietician or a health care provider either through Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Take care,
Vitamin A is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin that has many diverse benefits for humans. Vitamin A promotes eyesight and helps us see in the dark; aids in the differentiation of cells of the skin (lining the outside of the body) and mucous membranes (linings inside of the body); helps the body fight off infection and sustain the immune system; and, supports growth and remodeling of bone. In addition, dietary vitamin A, in the form of beta carotene (an antioxidant), may help reduce your risk for certain cancers.
Adequate vitamin A intake is essential to human health. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness (inability to see in the dark or to recover sight quickly after being exposed to a flash of bright light in the dark) and xerophthalmia (progressive blindness that becomes irreversible if not treated in time with vitamin A).
Vitamin A deficiency can also reduce the health and integrity of skin and other epithelial tissues. The effect on skin can result in dry skin and hyperkeratosis (the development of clumps of skin around hair follicles). The effect on epithelial tissues can negatively affect the digestion and absorption of nutrients and cause infections of major systems and their organs (i.e., gastrointestinal, nervous/muscular, respiratory, and urogenital). In addition, bone growth can stop and normal bone remodeling can become impaired, resulting in anemia and weakened immunity.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin A is measured in retinol equivalents (RE), retinol being the active form of vitamin A. For adult men, the RDA is 900 micrograms of RE per day and for adult women it is 700 micrograms of RE per day.
Despite its benefits, too much Vitamin A can cause toxicity, the effects of which can vary depending on its source. Excessive intake of vitamin A in dietary form is not harmful, but will cause one's skin to turn yellow in color. In contrast, large dose supplements (10 - 15 times the RDA) of vitamin A (as retinol) is harmful, and could result in the development of a fatty liver (hepatomegaly), dry skin, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, headaches, anorexia, and/or possibly increase the risk of birth defects among pregnant women. Symptoms depend upon whether or not vitamin A intake was taken over a long period of time (chronic) or a single excessive dose at one point in time (acute). In general, fat-soluble vitamins should not be consumed in excess of the recommendations because, unlike water-soluble vitamins in which the excess is excreted out of the body, an excess of fat-soluble vitamins will be stored and accumulated in the body.
It is highly recommended that vitamin A be consumed in the diet rather than from supplements. The richest sources of dietary vitamin A are liver, fish liver oils, milk, milk products, butter, and eggs. Liver is an especially rich source because vitamin A is primarily stored in the liver of animals and humans. Vitamin A is also found in a variety of dark green and deep orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, butternut squash, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce. Beta carotene is the most active carotenoid (the red, orange, and yellow pigments) form of vitamin A. In addition, cooking (but not overcooking) increases the bioavailability of carotenoids in plant foods and absorption of dietary vitamin A is improved when consumed along with some fat in the same meal.
Hope this helps,
Dear Confused and College Bound,
You are not alone with your concerns. Going to college is a big step in a person's life involving major changes. You and those around you may be living on your own for the first time, making decisions on a buffet of issues, including what to eat.
Eating healthy at college is possible. Many college dining services are offering more healthy choices and are often quite receptive to students' concerns and dietary preferences. But, this is only part of the challenge. In an environment where time, friends, and finances may combine in new ways, having options available only solves some of the puzzle. It's important to experiment with what works best for you. For example, that traditional idea of three square meals a day has been updated with a more contemporary concept of eating five smaller meals spread throughout the day. Steer clear of diets or fads, especially those that drastically limit a particular nutrient. Remember, balance, moderation, and variety win out over trendy and extreme. For some practical tips, navigate through the many options on Choosemyplate.gov. Columbia students can also take advantage of the resources from the Get Balanced initiative. Plan ahead when possible so you don't have to rely on vending machines when you're hungry; think of ways to incorporate fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on a daily basis. Eating more of these will fill you up and possibly even enhance your already stellar brain power.
Making time for physical activity is important, too. Most college fitness centers have a variety of movement classes and options. When the weather is right, grab a friend and walk, run, bike, or blade outdoors. If you are Columbia affiliated, you can connect with the CU Move initiative. CU Move encourages members of the Columbia community to engage in active lives that include regular physical activity. The program provides participants with motivation, incentives to be active throughout the year, and event calendars with access to plenty of free and low-cost physical activity options on campus and around NYC.
Now, to address the second part of your question: an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, is less about food, eating, and body weight. It has more to do with mental health, emotional, physical, socio-cultural, and family issues. If this is a particular concern of yours, you might want to take a look at Eating disorders vs. normal eating. Additionally, if you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a health care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss your concerns by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).
Give yourself some time to adjust to a new environment and ask for help when you need it. Everything in moderation, even moderation.
Enjoy your time at college,
As they say, everything in moderation — including fiber! Eating enough fiber can have many health benefits, while too much may have consequences. By learning how much fiber you need, how much is in your food, and adjusting your diet accordingly, you’ll be able to strike a balance that’s ideal for your body (and your bowels).
Fiber is basically composed of plant-based food matter (fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes) that can’t be broken down by your digestive system. Whole foods contain both soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (does not dissolve in water) fiber. Although the recommendations below don’t distinguish between these two types of fiber, they are different and have distinct functions — soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol and glucose levels, and insoluble fiber helps with constipation by increasing fecal bulk.
Overall, fiber may lead to many health benefits, such as:
- Keeping you regular. Fiber decreases the risk of constipation by bulking up and softening your stool.
- Maintaining your bowel health. Fiber may prevent the development of diverticulitis and hemorrhoids. It has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in some cases.
- Lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels. By reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol and blood glucose levels, soluble fiber also leads to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and type II diabetes.
- Controlling your appetite/weight. Foods that contain fiber are typically low in fat, energy-dense, take more time to chew, keep you full for longer, and block some of the digestion of fats and proteins.
- Preventing cancer. Fiber consumption may lower the risk for colorectal cancer, but the evidence is not yet conclusive.
Curious if you are getting enough fiber in your diet? You can use either the USDA Food List or WebMD’s Fiber-o-Meter to figure out the fiber content of the foods you eat and get suggestions for high-fiber foods. Making a habit out of reading the nutrition facts on food labels will also help. Generally, women need less fiber than men, and those aged 51 years or older need less than younger individuals. The following table can give you an idea of how much fiber you need on a daily basis:
Age 50 or younger
Age 51 or older
Source: Institute of Medicine
However, having too much fiber in one's diet can cause problems. When the intake of fiber is too high, it can replace other energy and nutrients that you need in your diet. Some insoluble fibers bind certain minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron. Too much fiber can also cause abdominal discomfort, gas, and diarrhea, and block the gastrointestinal (GI) tract if you add too much fiber too fast. For some, fiber supplements may potentially cause additional, more severe side effects such as allergic reactions and asthma, gastrointestinal distress, and drug and nutrient interactions. If you feel that you might benefit from taking fiber supplements, it's best to speak with a health care provider first to make sure it’s right for you.
So, before you load up on fiber, try adding it to your diet gradually, so that your GI tract has time to adapt. You'll also want to drink lots of fluids to keep the fiber soft. Choosing a variety of soluble and insoluble fiber-rich food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and legumes (beans and peas) will ensure that not only will you get a good mix of fiber, but beneficial nutrients, too. Remember that brown rice and 100 percent whole wheat bread have more fiber than white rice or white bread. Also, eating the skins of your fruits and vegetables whenever possible can also help increase fiber intake. If you're a Columbia student and need advice or more information about incorporating fiber-rich foods into a balanced diet, you can make an appointment with a health care provider or a registered dietitian by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).
Hope this was helpful!
Dear Supplementally Confused,
It may depend on the type of dietary supplement. Supplements range from daily multi-vitamins and minerals to anabolic steroids. Certain supplements are recommended for various conditions. For example, calcium supplements are often encouraged to help prevent osteoporosis, and iron is recommended for those who are anemic. Pregnant women's increased nutritional needs may require that they supplement with vitamins and minerals. The performance enhancing supplements that are so widely advertised today (i.e., creatine, chromium picolinate, protein shakes, amino acids) are not needed by the average person.
The best way to get all of the nutrients your body needs is to eat a healthy diet. To do this, you should eat a variety of foods, have a good balance within the food groups (read Food Guidelines — How much is a serving? for details), eat enough calories (at least 1200), and make nutrient-dense choices, such as whole wheat bread and skim milk as opposed to white bread and whole milk.
Although vitamin and mineral supplements serve an important purpose for some people, you cannot depend on pills alone to provide your body with the nutrients it needs. Pills do not have phytochemicals, the non-nutrient compounds found in plant-derived foods that have biological activity in the body. Approximately 150 phytochemicals are found in foods along with the vitamins and minerals the body needs. Phytochemicals play a very important role in helping the body defend itself against cancer and cancer-causing agents, and probably many other things as well. An example of a known phytochemical is beta-carotene, a carotenoid. It is found in deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cantaloupe, pumpkin, and apricots. Carotenoids act as antioxidants, reducing the risk of cancer. Read Antioxidants for more info.
So the best bet is to do what you were told as a child and, "eat your fruits and veggies!" Five servings a day is a great start. If you do supplement, be careful not to overdose. More of a "good" thing is not necessarily good for you. Besides being expensive, over-supplementing can be harmful to you. For more information, read What's the difference between vitamins and minerals? from the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.
How much did you bet? It's time for your co-worker to pay up!
The human body can survive a surprisingly long time on water alone, but it is nowhere near six months. When the body is deprived of new fuel (i.e., food), it breaks into its energy reserves to keep going. The body stores energy in the form of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
After one day without food, the body will have used up its carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in liver and muscle cells. After that, it's on to the fat reserves. Your average Joe/Jane, weight-wise, has enough fat reserves to live for four to six weeks without food. After that, the body begins to use its protein reserves (basically, the body itself). Body proteins are used up at a much faster rate than fat, and you could really only get another two to three weeks out of protein. At that point, however, you can't really call it living since so much irreparable damage has been done to the body, including the brain.
Bottom line: an average person could live for about eight weeks on water alone, give or take about a week for an over- or underweight person, respectively.
Cholesterol is a necessary component for living cells. However, high levels of blood cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. To complicate matters even more, blood cholesterol can be divided into two types, one of which actually lowers the risk of heart disease! To get the story on cholesterol straight, it's necessary to understand something about how cholesterol works in the body and how it can contribute to heart disease.
Most of the cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver. A significantly smaller amount comes from dietary sources, such as meat, eggs, and dairy products. Cholesterol travels throughout the body via the blood stream, being absorbed by cells along the way to be used for important processes, such as hormone production and cell membrane repair. Because it isn't water soluble, cholesterol is ferried along the bloodstream encased in protein. These cholesterol-filled protein orbs are called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins come in a variety of sizes that behave differently from one another. Broadly, health care providers and scientists talk about low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
The role of both types of cholesterol in heart disease centers around the formation of arterial plaques — fatty, filmy deposits on arterial walls. Over time, plaques become hardened, leading to narrow, rigid arteries that impede blood flow and thereby increase the risk of heart attack. Also, smaller plaques sometimes develop blood clots on their surface, which can then detach and go on to block arteries downstream, potentially leading to heart attack. Although the biochemistry involved isn't simple, the take home message is that LDL contributes to the formation of plaques on the artery walls, while HDL helps prevent their formation. Accordingly, LDL is often called "bad" cholesterol while HDL is called "good" cholesterol. (These terms apply only to blood cholesterol; dietary cholesterol is neither good nor bad in this sense.)
For more information on cholesterol and heart disease, read the Related Q&As listed below.
The benefits and side effects of melatonin are still under review by researchers and medical professionals — so any discussion about those should be considered tentative, based on what is known thus far. Similar to a wide array of supplements available over the counter, manufacturers do not need Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before marketing dietary supplements like melatonin. So, exercising caution and asking questions of a trusted health expert can really help consumers make more informed choices.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain that has a quick acting, sleep-inducing effect (more like Mellow-tonin, am I right?). It is a light-sensitive hormone, meaning that the absence of light stimulates its secretion. Melatonin may play a role in controlling the circadian rhythm, the body's internal clock and sleep cycle. Before puberty, the pineal gland produces comparatively large amounts of melatonin. As we age, melatonin production continually decreases, perhaps explaining why older people either have difficulty sleeping, or sleep less.
The melatonin you may find in health food stores and pharmacies is actually a synthetic version of the hormone; you can also purchase a form that combines synthetic and natural (from sheep pineal glands) melatonin. Both types of melatonin mimic the real thing in chemical composition and behavior. However, some people favor the entirely synthetic form because it does not carry the risk of contamination that the partially organic form does. Research has also found melatonin in some food sources, including meats, eggs, many vegetables, fruits, seeds, oils, coffee, tea, wine, and beer. Consumption of melatonin from food sources may increase the circulation of melatonin and it’s benefits as an antioxidant, but more research is needed on these potential benefits.
Many claims have been made to melatonin's miraculous powers. So far, scientific evidence has revealed melatonin to be clearly beneficial for a few sleep issues — like insomnia, jet lag, and delayed sleep syndrome. However, recent studies also reveal potential benefits in the following areas:
- reducing pre-operative anxiety and post-operative pain
- improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients undergoing breast cancer surgery
Melatonin taken in recommended doses between one and three months in duration may have very few negative side effects. That said, side effects are possible. Special caution is advised if you:
- are pregnant, breast-feeding, or trying to get pregnant
- are younger than 18 years old
- have high blood pressure
- have diabetes
- have depression
- have a seizure disorder
Depending on what your intended use is for melatonin, dosing can vary. And just like many medications, people can respond very differently to melatonin — some people are more sensitive than others to the supplement and dosage may factor into this as well. If you decide to supplement with melatonin, it's best to discuss dosage recommendations with a health care provider. Too high a dose could lead to anxiety. Large doses of melatonin to children under 15 could also cause seizures.
More research is still needed in all of these arenas — evidence regarding the long-term use of melatonin, in addition to its benefits and side-effects, may not be available for years to come. Talking with a health care provider about taking melatonin can help you decide if you're at high risk for negative side effects.
Hope this helps!
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. Get Balanced! Columbia University's 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 B-12 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!