There are many reasons that people choose to eat a vegetarian or plant-based diet. Animal welfare, environmental concerns, potential health benefits, and religious practices are just a few of the factors that draw people to this way of eating.
With the popularity of documentaries like What the Health and a growing understanding of the current state of the factory farming industry, it is no wonder many are becoming disenchanted with their burgers and bacon.
However, not all vegetarian diets are created equal and simply eliminating meat it is not the “cure all” that some people make it out to be. Other nutritional factors play a big role in your health, and there are many ways that a vegetarian diet can go wrong.
No matter your motivation for choosing a plant-based diet, if you want to experience good health, you must do more than just get rid of meat. In this post, I want to share my tips for making the most of your vegetarian diet!
Focus on Whole Foods
One of the biggest pit-falls I see when people eat plant-based is to rely on fake meat alternatives and convenient snack foods. While these foods do not contain any meat, they are not arguably any healthier than eating processed meat containing foods. Whether or not a processed food contains meat, or any other animal products, does not change the fact that they do contained ingredients that have been refined and processed to the point that they are devoid of nutrients and potentially inflammatory, such as sugar, preservatives, and refined seed oils. Yes, this applies even to products that are labeled “natural” and “organic.”
Instead of basing your diet around imitation chicken nuggets, granola bars, and grilled cheese sandwiches, to support your health, you should mostly be eating foods that are whole and unprocessed. This means your diet will be made up of lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and high quality dairy (if you are including these specific animal products).
- Protein should come from legumes, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, eggs, full-fat dairy, fermented soy, and high quality protein powders.
- Carbohydrates should come from fruits, root vegetables like potatoes, squashes, and gluten free grains.
- Fats should come from whole food sources like avocados, coconuts, nuts and nut butters, egg yolks, full-fat dairy, and healthy cooking fats like coconut, olive, and avocado oil or ghee.
A diet rooted in whole foods as opposed to processed foods helps vegetarians and meat-eaters alike maintain better health by maximizing nutrients and minimizing inflammatory factors in the diet.
The human body is often more efficient at absorbing and utilizing nutrients from animal sources as opposed to plant-based sources. Some examples of this are absorptions rates heme vs. non-heme iron and the variable conversion of plant-based vitamin A to usable retinoids. This is not to say that animal products are necessarily better for you, but it does mean that impaired digestion can make it hard for our bodies to absorb the nutrients they need from a vegetarian diet. Optimizing digestion will help you extract the most nutrients possible from your food.
To maintain a healthy gut and optimize your digestion, I recommend:
- Avoiding foods that you do not tolerate. Dairy, gluten, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol are common offenders, but many people also find they have trouble with certain vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes. Everybody is different, so it is important to pay attention to how your body reacts to the foods that you eat. If a food gives you gas, constipation, diarrhea, or stomach pain, you should probably be avoiding it.
- Eating in a relaxed state. When we are stressed or moving a lot, blood is shunted away from the digested systems and to our muscles. This is not a great state to eat in because your digestive system can’t work to it’s full capacity and food could sit in your system undigested leading to gas and discomfort. Try to set aside time to eat your meals with minimal distractions and multitasking. Take a few deep breaths and calm down your body and mind before taking your first bite. This will help your digestive system get ready to accept food and break it down as well as it can.
- Chew your food really well. Most people do not chew their food enough, which is a shame because it is actually the first step in the digestive process. Chewing not only begins to digest food in your mouth, it also stimulates the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes farther along in your digestive system, so that you stomach and intestines are ready for the food when it gets there. Not chewing properly means that food will not be broken down as much as it should when it hits certain points in your digestive tract. This can lead to indigestion, acid reflux, gas, and lower absorption of nutrients.
Prepare your food properly
Preparing and cooking food properly can actually start to break down large molecules and make nutrients more available before we even start eating it. This makes the food easier to digest and more nourishing than it would have been otherwise. Not all foods require special preparation, but many staples in a vegetarian diet do.
- Grains and legumes should be soaked, drained, and rinsed before cooking. Grains and legumes, which provide a significant amount of the minerals in a vegetarian diet, contain a compound called phytic acid. Phytic acid is known as an “antinutrient” because it binds to minerals and prevents them from being absorbed. Soaking grains and legumes breaks down phytic acid so that you are able to actually utilize the minerals that these foods contain.
- Cook some of your vegetables. There is a big debate in the nutrition community between cooked vs. raw veggies and which is better. On the one hand, cooking can destroy some of the vitamin and antioxidant content of some vegetables, but this is not a rule. In some cases it actually makes the nutrients more bioavailable. Cooking veggies also reduces their size, making it easier to eat more of them in one sitting, and can make them easier to digest for some people. This is especially true for people who get digestive issues from eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale. While cooking these vegetables might lower their starting nutrient content, if it makes them easier to digest and eat more of, you may be getting more nutrients overall.
Source your dairy and eggs well
If you choose to include non-meat animal products in your diet, it is very important that you get them from good quality sources. When animals are raised in pasture and are allowed to eat and behave as they would naturally, they are healthier and produce milk and eggs that are higher in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. In fact, there are some nutrients that are hard to get from other sources, like K2, which is only found in grass-fed or pasture raised animal products, and is necessary for heart, brain, and bone health.
Conventionally produced dairy and eggs also come from animals who have been living in unsanitary, cramped conditions and may have been treated with antibiotics or hormones, which may effect the quality of the product and the effect it might have on your health.
Get your blood work done
I believe it is important for everyone to stay updated on the vitamin and mineral levels, but it is especially important for vegetarians since some nutrients may be harder to get in adequate amounts from plant sources. The nutrients you should be keeping an eye on include vitamins D, K2, A, and B12, as well as iron and calcium. If you are struggling to keep the levels of any of these vitamins up on a your vegetarian diet, you should talk to your doctor about supplementation.
It can be easy to thrive on a vegetarian diet, many people do it everyday! But simply avoiding meat and being complacent about other facets of nutrition will not get you there. By paying attention to the multiple nutritional factors that effect health and staying on top of your digestion and the nutrient density of your food you will get the most out of your plant-based diet.