A Complete Guide to a Vegetarian Diet

November 29, 2011

By Denise Lodge

Older adults concerned about their risk of heart disease, stroke, or type-2 diabetes may want to consider a vegetarian diet. A recent study published in Diabetes Care analysed the dietary patterns of 773 people whose average age was 60 years. Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians studied were three years older than non-vegetarians. Despite their slightly older age, compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians and semi-vegetarians experienced a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that can lead to heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.

One of the most common concerns about beginning a vegetarian diet is its nutritional sufficiency. Protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12 have traditionally been thought of as nutrients that come from animal sources. However, there are ways to include these nutrients in a vegetarian diet, while benefiting from the many other advantages of vegetarianism. In fact, the American Dietetic Association affirms that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

A vegetarian is defined as someone who does not consume animal meat, but still consumes other animal products, such as milk and eggs. Often this type of vegetarian is considered a “lacto-ovo vegetarian.” The diet of a lacto-ovo vegetarian includes grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes (dried beans and lentils), seeds, nuts, dairy products, and eggs. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism, three percent of adults in the United States are vegetarian. According to another poll taken this year, twenty-two percent of people ages 55 and over do not eat meat, fish, seafood, or poultry at more than half their meals.

Health Benefits of Vegetarianism

According to the Dietitians of Canada, “a low fat lacto-ovo vegetarian eating pattern has many potential health benefits,” including “lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, […] lower blood cholesterol levels, and a lower risk for gallstones and intestinal problems.”

Health Concerns with Eating Soy as Part of a Vegetarian Diet


Soy Bean Field

Soy Bean Field

Vegetarianism can seem daunting because of the misconception that all vegetarians can eat only soy, the health attributes of which are often debated, and the cooking methods of which are often unfamiliar. Dietitian Leslie Beck recently addressed the health concerns surrounding soy products in The Globe and Mail, writing that soybeans deliver plenty of nutrition, including fibre, omega-3 fats, vitamins, antioxidants, and protein, and are also very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. In her opinion, “soybeans, soy nuts, soy beverages (unflavoured), tofu [pressed soy milk curds], tempeh [a cake of fermented soybeans] and other natural soy products are healthy foods that can be safely consumed.”

The concern about soy comes primarily from its link to some cancers. Soy isoflavones, natural compounds that are structurally similar to human estrogen, compete for the same place on cells that estrogen does. Based on this similarity to estrogen, some hold that soy can prevent some cancers caused by excess estrogen, including breast and uterine cancer. However, others warn that soy isoflavones could increase a woman’s total estrogen levels and encourage the growth of breast cancer. However, studies about the positive and negative effects of soy on breast cancer have been inconclusive.

Another concern surrounding soy is the fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly genetically modified crops. According to GMO Compass, “over half of the world’s 2007 soybean crop (58.6 percent) was genetically modified.” Soybeans are primarily modified to tolerate herbicides, resist pests, and decrease their trans fat content.

One serving of soy is equivalent to one half-cup of whole soybeans, tempeh, texturized soy protein, or soy nuts, four ounces of tofu, two tablespoons of miso (a paste of fermented soybeans used for flavouring), or one cup of soy milk. According to the Dietitians of Canada, one cup of cooked soybeans contains as much protein as 100 grams of cooked meat.

Health Concerns in a Vegetarian Diet

Getting Enough Protein as a Vegetarian

Protein is not an optional part of a complete diet; protein is foundational for the health and replenishment of our bodies. Protein comprises our muscles, skin, and hair; helps to repair tissues and cells in our muscles and organs; and is involved in brain and hormone function.

One measurement for calculating your protein requirement is determined by weight; to calculate your protein requirement, multiply 0.8 grams of protein by your body weight in kilograms. For example, if you weigh 70 kilograms, you require 56 grams of protein per day.

Protein sources in a vegetarian diet include dried beans and lentils, such as kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, and red, brown and green lentils. Soaking the dried legumes helps to lower cooking time, and has also been shown to enhance iron absorption, as evidenced in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Grains, nuts, nut butters, and seeds are also excellent sources of protein. One tablespoon of salt-free, sugar-free peanut butter contains about 3 grams of protein. One sandwich made with two slices of whole-grain bread and 3 tablespoons of peanut butter contains about 19 grams of protein.

Getting Enough Iron as a Vegetarian

Our bodies use iron to make haemoglobin, which helps to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, and to carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs. Iron also contributes to energy, muscle function, and organ function. The recommended daily intake of iron for meat-eating men and women 50 years and older is 8 milligrams.

According to the Dietitians of Canada, “vegetarians need about twice as much iron” as meat-eaters. The recommended daily intake for vegetarians 50 years and older is 14 milligrams. Vegetarians need to consume more iron because the type of iron found in meat (heme iron) is different than the iron in plant sources (non-heme iron). Because the iron found in plant-sources is not as easily metabolized as iron found in animal sources, some vegetarians find it helpful to add an iron supplement to their vitamin regimen. Your body will better absorb non-heme iron when you eat it with foods rich in vitamin C.

There are many plant sources of iron, such as legumes; fruits, such as prunes, raisins, and apricots; and dark green vegetables, such as collards, okra, and bok choy. One-quarter of a cup of pumpkin seeds contains 8.6 milligrams of iron, three-quarters of a cup of lentils contains 4.9 milligrams, and one-half of a cup of cooked spinach contains 3.4 milligrams. Blackstrap molasses is also a good source of iron. To combine vitamin C with a meal rich in iron, have a citrus fruit or juice with an iron-rich meal.

Getting Enough Calcium as a Vegetarian

According to the Dietitians of Canada, “people over the age of 50 need more calcium […] and B12.” They advise that “a greater focus on the foods that have these nutrients is needed.”

According to HealthLink B.C., “bone thinning occurs as part of the natural process of aging,” but osteoporosis can be prevented “by eating a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D.” Sufficient intake of these nutrients is especially important for women during the first few years after menopause, when bone mass is lost more rapidly. Vitamin D helps to prevent osteoporosis, in that it is essential to calcium-absorption. Health Canada’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of calcium is 1,000 milligrams for males ages 51-70 years, and 1,200 milligrams for females in the same age range, and for those over age 70. The RDA of vitamin D for individuals up to 70 years old is 600 international units (IU), and for those over age 70, it is 800 IU.

One cup of plain yogurt contains 415 milligrams of calcium, and one 45-gram serving of cheddar cheese contains 306 milligrams.  Drinking four cups of milk per day will meet the RDA of 1,200 milligrams; milk is also often fortified with vitamin D, and those same four cups are sufficient for half of the 800-IU daily requirement.

Almonds: Photo Credit: McBLG97

One quarter-cup of almonds contains 93 milligrams of calcium.

Milk and other dairy products are not the only sources of calcium. Three quarters of a cup of white beans contain 119 milligrams of calcium, one half-cup of boiled turnip greens contains 104 milligrams, one quarter-cup of almonds contains 93 milligrams, and a half-cup of raw broccoli contains 33 milligrams.

Getting Enough Vitamin B-12 as a Vegetarian

Vitamin B12 is not to be ignored; it is required for the formation of red blood cells, DNA, hormones, proteins, and lipids, and for neurological function. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked to problems with memory and cognitive skills in women and men ages 65 and older, according to a report in the Washington Post corroborates these findings: the authors affirm that “vitamin B12 plays an important role in the maintenance of neuronal cell function, and deficiency in this nutrient can result in neurologic damage characterized in part by memory loss and confusion.”

Health Canada’s RDA of vitamin B12 (0.14 to 1,000 micrograms per day) can be obtained from food sources in a vegetarian diet; however, older adults can have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 that naturally occurs in foods. Considering this, health experts recommend eating fortified foods (such as cereals), or taking dietary supplements, which are better absorbed than the vitamin B12 in food sources.

Neither plants nor animals make vitamin B12; bacteria produce vitamin B12, and then animals become sources of vitamin B12 by eating foods contaminated with vitamin B12.

In a study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Density, the relationship between plasma vitamin B12 status and bone mineral density (BMD) was examined, and the findings showed that “both men and women with [lower] vitamin B12 concentrations had lower average BMD than those with [higher levels of] vitamin B12.”

Food sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, Red Star T-6635+, which is grown on a vitamin B12-enriched medium, and thus contains active vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast has a cheese-like taste, and can be sprinkled on foods like Parmesan cheese. Nutritional yeast is also an excellent source of protein. One teaspoon of powdered (two tablespoons of flaked) Red Star T6635+ yeast contains one microgram of vitamin B12, one cup of skim milk contains 1.4 micrograms, and two large, cooked eggs contain 1.2 micrograms.

Becoming vegetarian can be an adventure, as you seek and try new foods, new cooking methods, and new ways to meet healthy nutritional requirements. (Try our recipe for a vegetarian lentil soup)

Canadian Living: The Vegetarian Collection: Win a Free Copy

Canadian Living: The Vegetarian Collection by Alison Kent and the Canadian Living Test Kitchen includes tips, ingredient information, and recipes for vegetarians, flexitarians or vegans, and for those looking for something meat-free and delicious. If the idea of a vegetarian diet intrigues you, and you are interested in exploring recipes and potential benefits of the diet, enter to win a free copy by leaving a comment below, or on Impowerage’s Facebook page by 11:59 PST on January 11, 2012.

Congratulations to Ben who won a copy of Canadian Living: The Vegetarian Collection 

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  • http://www.veglov.com Vegetarian

    what a great guide! Thanks for this great article! Recommended!

  • Carol

    The guide will be helpful as I’ve increased my diet to mostly vegetables for improved health. New recipes will keep the eventual vegetable boredom at bay!

  • Libbie

    Thank you for the informative article: I remember when I bought a copy of ‘Confessions of a Sneaky Organic Cook’! nice to see more good publications.

  • Martha Gross

    Eating vegetarian is great only when you know how to cook well with fresh vegetables. I entertain and serve carnivores fabulous vegetarian dishes and they scarf them down, never even noticing they are vegetarian! Those same people would never consider ordering vegetarian food at a restaurant because they would imagine healthy and delicious to be mutually exclusive adjectives. I welcome this book and expect it will provide both excellent tips and recipes.

  • Ben

    My doctor says I need to cut down my red meat intake and I’d like to try some new recipes.

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