Updated: Sep 16, 2020
No – not from meat. Freedom to explore this diet without my kids complaining!
My husband and I are recent empty nesters, so I am stepping into this 2020 Nutrition Challenge with delight. I also enjoy creating meals in the kitchen, so I have found the perfect excuse to indulge my culinary side. Not that I need one - my husband is just glad that he doesn’t have to cook.
For Vegetarian Month, I did what some people do when they experiment with a new way of eating: I took a baby step. But think about it, most people will not go full vegan voluntarily. Believe me, I will plan well before I attempt vegan month! For March, I only eliminated meat and fish but held on fast to the dairy and eggs. I love cheese. I love eggs. I love cheese on my eggs! I eat eggs almost every day.
That being said, I do eat a wide variety of vegetables already, and have some pretty yummy stir fry recipes that I’ve used for years. I’ve also raised my kids with brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes and even tofu, so some vegetarian info has already been downloaded into my life.
Now, I realize that this may not be the case for my followers. To shore up this disconnect on kitchen and food preparation skills, I started a ‘Nutrition Tips’ YouTube series. You will find short simple videos on how to chop up an onion, a sweet potato, a pineapple as well as simple quick healthy foods. I add to this almost daily.
I was eager to evaluate my nutritional intake. There are several nutrients that are well known deficiencies for vegetarians, and I wanted to see how my nutrition degree and stockpile of recipes would serve me. The preliminary results are below. For a thorough discussion on this, please see my blog: Should a Vegetarian take Vitamin Supplements?
My nutrition is tracked on MyFitnessPal - I pay for the premium plan so they can crunch the data for me. Being a bit of an Excel spreadsheet fan, I have my own summary at hand. Yes, I love nutrition so much that I made a spreadsheet! I should be committed. But, instead, I share my craziness with you! Lucky you! The summary below follows
the government RDA standards; please be aware that many of the recommended quantities will vary for different age groups.
So, after 2 weeks on a Vegetarian diet, here’s what I found:
A. THE GOOD:
Fiber: As you might expect, my fiber intake average was 27grams per day, much higher than the 21 recommended.
Iron: I am also taking in a lot of iron from plant sources – a whopping 61 mg per day! This is over 3 times the RDA of 18mg. Mostly I get my iron from raisins, lentils, quinoa and swiss chard. BUT, because the non-heme-iron in plants is not as bioavailable as the heme-iron in animal sources, vegetarians are encouraged to consume twice the RDA. So, I’m covered there.
Fats: Other good news includes a high intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. They are sometimes abbreviated as PUFAs and MUFAs. Yes, the healthy fats. I found them primarily in my daily avocado and nut fetish. My trans-fat intake was zero.
Sugar: My refined sugar intake is low. Only about 62grams = 5 Tbsp = 240 calories per day. There is no RDA for sugar because it is not a nutrient. The guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) advises no more than 150 calories, so I am still over by 90 calories. If I leave out the sugar in my coffee, then I bring that down by 48 calories, but that is not going to happen. I could cut out Nutella, but again – no.
At least not until Raw Food month. Oh boy.
Alcohol: I am not drinking any alcohol during this challenge. Alcohol stresses the liver and depletes nutrients. I want my nutritional assessment to reflect the nutrients that are truly available to my system.
Water: 2 glasses in the morning, first thing. This is a great way to wake up and flush your lymphatic system of debris that it has worked so hard all night to clear out. On average, I drink about 7 glasses of water a day. The RDA for water seems very high at 2.7 liters. I think my eyeballs would be floating in that much water! My advice is to aim for 8 glasses per day, so, have it on hand and sip frequently. Always bring a water bottle with your when you work out. Drinking water before meals is a great way to meet your water goal and reduce excess snacking. Most people are dehydrated, and these simple hacks will prevent that. When you're hydrated, you tend to feel fresh and alert.
B. THE BAD:
Sodium: Yowsa. I take in about double of what I should. 1300mg is recommended. I average 2300. The culprits in my kitchen are processed cheese, and store-bought bread. My blood pressure is elevated at 140/88, so I need to find some discipline there. I’m also not counting the sea salt that I love to season with…making the sodium situation scary.
Potassium: This intracellular electrolyte is essential to maintaining good health. Our RDA is high at 4700, and I barely cross the 1000mg mark. I do eat one large serving of dark leafy greens daily, as well as a banana, but it is not nearly enough. Unfortunately, it is not a simple task to supplement with potassium due to its potential severe impact on heart function. The good news is that blood levels of potassium usually remain in a normal range. Bottom line to boost intracellular potassium: pass the veggies please!
Vit A: I am only taking in 150 of the 700mg needed here. Dark leafy greens are your friend here, so eat your salad! I ate a serving of dark leafy greens every day and still did not get enough. Supplement, yes - Mega dose, no. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it is not wise to supplement with popular mega doses here, as the body retains these longer than water-soluble vitamins.
Calcium: Yah, I expected this. Calcium is hard for EVERYONE to get enough of, unless you are pounding the dairy products. Then you’ll be constipated, so don’t try to be a hero. (not to mention the high intake of saturated fats that comes with cheese) It is much better to take a calcium supplement, up to 1500 mg per day. My intake is only about 75mg per day of the 1200 needed. I strongly suggest a calcium citrate form to supplement with as the body can assimilate it the easiest.
C. THE UGLY:
INSTANT POT. I had a few moments.
1) I enthusiastically bought an Instant Pot Vegetarian Cookbook. See, I’ve made some fantastic meals with my Instant Pot, and couldn’t wait to use it for vegetarian meals. I should have slowed down enough to see past the reviews and actually look at the cover. It had about 5 salads on it. Major FAIL.
2) I burned vegetables in it.
Sigh. And really, what is the point to pressure cook vegetables? It takes way too much time, and they turn into mush. Uck. Oh, sure, you can use it to sauté the veggies, on the Sauté setting. Right, and I did do that. But how unpleasant to have to be on your tip toes looking into the pot, when it is much faster and more delightful to do this on your stovetop, in a nicer pot. Instant Pot is really great for grains though, and the quinoa turned out perfect after just tossing it in with water. Instant Pot, you have redeemed yourself, but I will probably find you more useful when I start eating meat again.
1) Am I getting enough protein?
Yes, without even trying to plan it out, I met the RDA for protein. This confirms the many sources who state that protein intake is not a problem. As a nutritionist, I must add that the KEY TO PROTEIN intake for vegetarians is VARIETY. You will be in trouble if you rely on chips and salsa, or junk food on a daily basis. See my blog on this topic, Vegetarians and Protein
2) What about Vitamin B-12?
I am disappointed that MyFitnessPal does not track this nutrient. B-12 is hard to find in natural foods unless they are animal products. There is a product called ‘Nutritional Yeast’ which is very high in B-12, and used by vegetarians to shore us this potential deficit. You can sprinkle it on salads, toast or anything you may want. My feeling is that this is an unreliable way to shore up your B-12 intake. It is much more advisable to take a B-Complex vitamin daily. It is a water-soluble vitamin, so it cannot build up in your system. Also, the B-vitamins are critical to an unborn child’s nervous system.
3) Where can you get Omega 3s without fish?
I miss my salmon.
I can tell you, getting enough Omegas for a vegetarian is not a good picture. Walnuts have an omega fat that can be converted to those prized Omega 3s: DHA and EPA. Let me ask you this: Would you rely on a strategy of eating enough walnuts to convert into enough DHA.? The Omega 3 DHA is crucial for brain development and hormonal balance. Fortunately, we live in the age of science where a non-fish-based source of DHA has been discovered and is now available as a vegan supplement.
4) Is sea salt a safe substitute for table salt?
Personally, I love the flavor that sea salt adds to any dish. You want to pop the flavor? Add sea salt. Amazing. It does have several trace minerals in it as well, but not enough iodine. Low iodine can lead to developmental issues for an unborn child, and in an adult can cause an enlarged thyroid (goiter). Natural sources for iodine are animal products, so it is best to take a multivitamin with iodine in it.
1) High quality snacks are easy. From nuts and dried fruit, to avocados and fresh fruit. Cheese sticks and yogurt are also excellent midday treats.
2) I found the diet fairly easy to maintain. Consider the fact that much of what we eat on the Standard American Diet would classify as vegetarian: soups, salads, vegetable side dishes, even breads and desserts. If you set a goal to learn 1 new dish a week, then you can be very successful. This is a nice pace to introduce new foods to your family.
3) I recommend that you get comfortable with soy products like tempeh and the occasional tofu. We know that soy products are estrogenic and therefore need to be taken in moderation. 2-3 times a week is a nice balance.
4) Get a rice cooker. This makes preparing grains a snap. Gone are the days of letting rice simmer on the stove. Simply fill the rice cooker, set the timer and relax. I really didn't appreciate the miracle of this little appliance until I started using it.
5) Vegetarian foods use more spices, and I bet that you will be delighted by the variety and the new flavors! In a future post I will share my 10 favorite vegetarian recipes, so stay tuned!
6) My results indicate supplements for Calcium, Zinc, B-complex and Omega 3s.
My well balanced homemade meals are nutrient dense. I rarely ate empty calories foods like bread. I don't drink calories either in the form of soda or sports drinks. I am clearly getting enough protein. I want to have strong bones and support my immune system. The best way to accomplish this is to supplement. For these needs, I need Calcium, Zinc, B-complex and Omega 3s!
A vegetarian diet can meet most of your nutritional needs. It passes the viable diet test - meaning that you can maintain this style of eating for the long-term. It is also a sustainable way of eating; your carbon footprint is dramatically reduced. You should supplement for predictable deficits of: Calcium, Vitamin B-12, Zinc, Omega 3s, & Iodine.
I am living 12 Diets in 12 Months so that you can see how they play out. In the coming months, when I follow a meat based diet, we will stack up the nutritional results and compare! Who will win? The lion or the rabbit?
1) Honor your body and take supplements. I recognize that the reality of shopping for supplements can be a major headache! You want good quality, not the drugstore brands that often have fillers and other contaminants. And, when those drugstores don’t have what you need, you’ll have to settle for what they have, or go to another store. Even those large vitamin store chains can be overwhelming - and frustrating.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a list of what you need already sorted out for you? Look no further. You can shop for supplements through my website. I have access to hundreds of high quality, non-GMO supplements; in addition, all my clients receive a 10% discount. Enjoy free shipping on orders over $50. This will give you peace of mind, knowing that these are professional grade supplements, and delivered right to your door. Auto-ship is also available. In the end, it will save you time and money.
2) Start with small steps. Learn to chop an onion. Practice with tofu and run taste tests before serving these to anyone else. Start a routine of drinking water in the morning. Get good at vegetable side dishes before trying to replace your meat and fish. Pasta dishes are a great way to have a Meatless Mondy. A vegetarian diet is full of variety. It can be fun, so learn to enjoy the process.
Until next time,