Nutritional Programs for Vegetarians

  • Vegetarians Nutrient Program

  • Some aspects of vegetarianism have been discussed in Chapter 3, Protein, and this type of diet was more fully described in Chapter 9. Here I explore the particular nutrient needs of those following a vegetarian diet, as well as reviewing briefly the many advantages and a few disadvantages of this most humane diet.

    Vegetarianism has a long history, and a primarily vegetarian diet is still the most common type on the planet. Even in America, most people’s diets were mainly vegetarian until the turn of the twentieth century, when beef consumption began to increase; it continued to increase steadily until only recently.

    A change to a vegetarian diet automatically reduces intake of both protein and saturated fats unless there is a marked increase in consumption of dairy foods and eggs. One of the biggest problems with the contemporary American diet, which I have discussed earlier, is the focus on (or obsession with) protein as the staple of the diet. This is probably responsible for the increase in cardiovascular diseases and cancer because it also naturally increases the intake of saturated fats. We need to return to a focus on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables to give us the high-complex-carbohydrate, high-fiber, high-nutrient, and low-fat diet that is so essential to good health and longevity.

    Vegetarianism is indeed becoming more popular again. It has support from the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, who in their subtle way are finally acknowledging that diet is an important component of health and disease. Many more diet books and cookbooks are focusing on the vegetarian diet, and more athletes, business people, and others are adopting this diet and lifestyle plan.

    It is clear to me that vegetarianism makes a statement about both health and planetary consciousness. In a provocative new book, Diet for a New America, John Robbins discusses the inhumane treatment of animals and the waste of resources (water and land) by the cattle and poultry industries. Our diet says a lot more about us than just our personal tastes, as Mr. Robbins tells us on the book cover: “How your food choices affect your health, happiness, and the future of life on earth.” We all need to be more vegetarian even if we are not “exclusively” vegetarian. Supporting the current carnivorous planetary program is a factor that creates pollution, economic imbalance, and relative starvation, and this is what, I believe, we are trying to change for the health and peace of our future generations—our children.

    In my experience, vegetarians often adopt many other positive health habits in addition to eating more naturally. Those who are vegetarians more for health than for religious reasons tend to eat wholesome foods, avoiding the refined flour and sugar foods and other empty-calorie treats, which are also vegetarian “foods.” I believe that even the Seventh-Day Adventists, the most celebrated group of vegetarians, at least in the medical literature, could have a much healthier diet and better statistics if they would adopt these principles. Still, as a group, they have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of cancer, heart disease, and obesity than the meat-eating population. A decrease in chronic diseases and an increase in longevity go hand in hand with vegetarianism.

    Among the potential disadvantages of vegetarianism are that a no flesh food product diet often makes it more difficult to balance our intake all of the necessary nutrients, particularly protein, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. Calcium deficiency, in general a big concern, seems not to be as common in vegetarians as had been thought. Adequate protein can easily be obtained, as discussed later in this section. Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is consistently a problem for vegetarians, especially for the pure vegetarian, or vegan, who eats no animal foods at all—not even milk products or eggs. Vitamin B12 is most plentiful in red meats, and some is found in other animal foods, but most plant proteins are fairly low in this “red” vitamin. Brewer’s yeast, tempeh (fermented soybeans), and some sprouts have small amounts of B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency leads to poor metabolism of protein, fats, and carbohydrate; problems in building the coverings of nerves; and a low red blood cell count, called pernicious anemia. Fortunately, though, B12 is stored in the tissues at levels high enough to last for several years of low intake. I believe that a vegetarian’s body, or the body of anyone who has a particularly low intake of a nutrient, will naturally develop better absorption of that nutrient. Very few long-term vegetarians whom I have evaluated have had low blood levels of vitamin B12. Extra B12 as a supplement (the sublingual tablets are currently the best source of oral B12) will usually prevent any deficiency unless there are problems with the stomach making “intrinsic factor” or with the liver’s ability to store this vitamin (see the discussion of Vitamin B12 in Chapter 5).

    A vegetarian diet can also be an important part of a good therapeutic plan for many problems. It is more cleansing or detoxifying than the usual higher-fat and higher-protein diets, because it usually contains a greater percentage of dietary fiber and the watery fruits and vegetables. In terms of the body’s nutritional cycles of cleansing, building, and balancing, the vegetarian regime is very effective in cleansing, beneficial in balancing if it is well-planned and implemented, and generally less effective in its building powers. (For that reason, I do not recommend a vegan diet for children or teenagers or during pregnancy or lactation, where I feel more building and strengthening are needed. The lacto-ovo type of vegetarianism, though, should work fine.) It might be wise for all of us to eat a vegetarian diet every so often, such as a day or two a week, one week a month, or even more often during spring and summer. Variations of the vegetarian diet can be used for detoxification as discussed later in Chapter 18. A fast or cleansing diet may be a useful remedy for many types of congestive problems. With sickness, though, I usually suggest more complex carbohydrates in the diet, with higher intake of water and water-containing foods; this helps avoid dehydration and usually improves vitality.

    Some choose vegetarianism for spiritual reasons, feeling that it elevates us to our higher vibrational levels and enhances sensitivity. Meats and animal foods pull us down into our earthly realms of sexual instincts, aggression, and desire for power. Often, someone eating a completely vegetarian diet will want to move away from the busy, active life of most cities where the hustle and bustle requires a more aggressive energy. When I lived for years in the country as a vegetarian, we used to describe going into San Francisco on business as a “meat loaf” day.

    The vegetarian diet composed of “organically grown” foods comes the closest to following the general nutritional guidelines recommended throughout this book. A high-fiber, high-complex-carbohydrate, nutrient-rich diet composed mainly of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds will provide all the nutrients we need. Whether vegetarian or not, this should be the basic foundation of all health-oriented diets. It is also more alkaline and higher in most vitamins and minerals than any other type of diet. Only small amounts of milk products, eggs, or various animal fleshes might be added to the vegetarian diet to make it easier to obtain the necessary calcium, iron, and B12.

    Protein is always the big topic of discussion when it comes to vegetarianism. Eating complementary proteins, such as grains or seeds with legumes, or eggs or dairy foods with any of the vegetable proteins, is the usual suggestion for obtaining adequate protein. This is because each specific vegetable protein is low in one or two of the essential amino acids so that when eaten alone it does not provide equivalent levels of all the essential amino acids required to build our tissue proteins. When we eat some legumes, which are high in lysine and isoleucine and low in tryptophan and methionine, with grains, which have the opposite strengths and weaknesses, we obtain all of our essential amino acids in more equal levels. If the digestion of proteins and the assimilation of amino acids and peptides is normal, then a minimum daily requirement of protein should be in the range of 40–50 grams (about 1H–2 ounces).

    Several noted authors have recently suggested that we do not need to be as concerned about complementary proteins as was previously thought. Frances LappŽ, who proposed the idea of complementing proteins in Diet for a Small Planet, now suggests that our body can find the needed amino acids when any plant protein food has been eaten over the day. Though I have felt that this might be true, I have not seen any conclusive research, which might be hard to conduct, about this issue. On the other hand, it would seem that when there is any malnutrition and subsequent deficiency or low body stores of certain nutrients, in this case amino acids, it would be more difficult to manufacture necessary body proteins from consistent meals containing incomplete proteins eaten over several days. In that situation, or when food intake analyses or blood tests suggest inadequate protein intake or assimilation, we then must focus more on protein consumption and, possibly, digestion. Otherwise, a balanced vegetarian diet should pose no concerns about adequacy of protein intake.

    Given the current knowledge and an attitude of “better safe than sorry,” I still suggest combining vegetable proteins at meals or at least in the same day to create a complete profile of essential amino acids. Protein deficiency, though much rarer than most people fear, can cause some problems. With a more stressful lifestyle or a high level of athletic activity, protein needs may be increased, and thus, more high-protein foods are required. Fatigue is a common problem in vegetarians with low-protein diets. Weight loss and low body weights are also more likely with this type of diet. Another concern I have is that amino acids and proteins are very important to the immune system. I commonly see lower white (and red) blood cell counts in vegetarians, likely due to not having all the cell-building nutrients available, particularly protein. If the immune system is weakened by a low nutrient availability, especially in combination with high stresses, infectious disease is much more likely. In the digestive analyses of my patients I also see a higher amount of parasites and intestinal yeast overgrowth present in the vegetarians. This may be due to the lower protein and higher sweet diet which appears more common with inadequate protein intake—more vegetable-based foods are higher in carbohydrates and sweet flavors, plus many vegetarians crave sweet foods. It may also result from a more alkaline system, which supports growth of parasites and yeasts, or low immunity. In most of these cases, I recommend a higher-protein, wholesome food diet. I may even suggest the additional L-amino acids to ensure that all are present for immune functions, though most amino acid formulas are not “vegetarian derived.”

    There is also some concern that a high-fiber vegetarian diet does not provide enough of the important minerals such as zinc, manganese, copper, iron, and calcium, or that the phytic acid in grains combines with these minerals in the intestinal tract and reduces their absorption. Recent research described in Dr. Stuart Berger’s How to Be Your Own Nutritionist suggests that after a few weeks of high-fiber vegetarianism, our body improves its absorption of zinc, iron, calcium, and copper. In any event, I recommend a good mineral supplement program to ensure that we ingest enough of these nutrients. The mineral intake should be in balance, because a high amount of one mineral may interfere with the absorption of the others; this is especially true for zinc and copper or calcium and magnesium.

    As part of the supplement program, I suggest a general multiple-nutrient formula, vegetarian-derived, of course. Additional calcium-magnesium is suggested if there is low intake of dairy products. Extra vitamin D will enhance calcium absorption, and this is particularly important during the less sunny months and for those who avoid the sunshine. I encourage taking extra zinc (and copper and manganese to balance with zinc) because it is so important and dietary deficiencies are common, even in vegetarians. I often suggest additional iron, especially if the red blood cell count is low; menstruating women frequently need higher amounts of iron. It is wise for vegetarians to have blood counts done occasionally (every year or two) to make sure that anemia is not developing.

    In regard to supplemental vitamin B12, I suggest it for all strict vegetarians. It is contained in almost all multiple formulas, though even higher amounts are often wise, at least several times yearly for a month or so. Vitamin B12 may often help with problems of fatigue. If there is any problem with absorption (this can be checked by monitoring blood levels), vitamin B12 injections would be indicated. An amino acid formula or protein powder may also be useful if there is any fatigue, excessive weight loss, or concern about inadequate protein ingestion, digestion, or assimilation.

    The following table offers a basic supplement plan as insurance for those on a vegetarian diet. Some naturalists do not like to take “vitamins,” as they are not whole foods, but extracts of foods or synthetic preparations, but in many instances I feel that they are indicated. They are suggested here as a means for prevention of depletions and deficiency diseases. If we eat very well, balance our foods, maintain low stress levels, stay attuned to our body functions, and occasionally test body nutrient states and biochemical functions, then we might be able to avoid supplementation. However, I recommend at least short-term periods, several times yearly, of more intense nutrient intake to ensure proper availability of all the micronutrients.

    Vegetarianism Nutrient Program

    Calories 1,800–3,000*
    Protein50–70 g.

    Vitamin A5,000–10,000 IUs Calcium500–800 mg.
    Beta-carotene10,000 IUs Chromium200 mcg.
    Thiamine (B1)25 mg. Copper2 mg.
    Riboflavin (B2)25 mg. Iodine 150 mcg.
    Niacin (B3) or50 mg. Iron men—15 mg.
    Niacinamide (B3) 50 mg. women—25 mg.
    Pantothenic acid (B5)100 mg. Magnesium 350–500 mg.
    Pyridoxine (B6) or50 mg. Manganese 5–10 mg.
    Pyridoxal-5-phosphate50 mg. Molybdenum 300 mcg.
    Cobalamin (B12)100–250 mcg. Selenium200 mcg.
    Folic acid400 mcg. Silicon 100 mg.
    Biotin 500 mcg. Zinc 30 mg.
    Choline250–500 mg.
    Inositol250–500 mg.
    Bioflavonoids 250 mg. Lactobacillus2 billion organisms
    Vitamin D400 IUs
    Vitamin E400 IUs Optional:
    Vitamin K 150–300 mcg. L-amino acids1,000 mg.

    *Depends on the size, age, and the activity level of the individual.

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    Written by Elson M. Haas MD

    Explore Wellness in 2021