I’ve been planning meals for my Vegan Experiment. As I mentioned in my last post, there are certain nutrients that vegetarians (and vegans) tend to eat in lower than recommended amounts.This may lead you to ask two questions. One – What exactly are nutrients? Two – Who makes these recommendations?
Nutrients are the nutritional substances we get from foods: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, and even phytochemicals (or plant nutrients like resveratrol in wine/grapes).
The recommendations are made by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. They are based on years of population studies and research. They have drafted the DRIs (dietary reference intakes), which include the RDAs (recommended daily amounts), AI (adequate intake) and TULs (tolerable upper limits) for specific nutrients.
In plain language, these all tell the general population (or health professionals who translate it!) how much of the nutrient meets the needs of the 98% of the healthy population over age 2 in order to prevent deficiencies. For certain nutrients, there is also an upper level to prevent toxicity. Personally, preventing deficiency and toxicity sound good to me. Remember though, if you are under two (and you’re reading this, I’m impressed!) or have any health condition, these recommendations may not apply to you. There’s some good information on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Information Center. If you want to know the recommendations specifically for you, there’s an interactive tool; but I wouldn’t get too caught up in all those numbers if I were you!
Any person who cuts out entire food groups is going to be lacking in certain nutrients. There is a reason there are food groups as the basis of the ChooseMyPlate method of eating. It’s because different food groups provide different nutrients and our bodies function best when we eat all of them. Whether it’s grains (breads and other carbohydrate foods), proteins (meats), fruits and vegetables, or dairy (milk, cheese, and yogurt), cutting out a food group cuts out specific nutrients. Those who cut out meats are taking away a large chunk of the foods in the protein group and most of the sources of complete proteins (proteins that have all the amino acids our body needs and cannot make on its own).
Finally, on to my point!
For optimal health, I recommend that over the course of the day, vegetarians include foods that, when put together, make complete proteins and plan to eat enough foods that provide iron, calcium, zinc, omega-3’s, and vitamins D and B12. Iodine may also be a concern if iodized salt is not used in cooking or flavoring foods.
How to do this?
Complete proteins: Examples of foods that make complete proteins include: tofu and rice, corn and beans, rice and beans/peas, peanut butter and whole wheat bread, granola and soy milk, or a green salad with garbanzo beans and sunflower seeds. The idea is to match grains/seeds/nuts with beans/peas or to match vegetables with both grains/seeds/nuts and beans/peas. Simple enough! And to make it even easier, soy and quinoa are already complete proteins.
For the other nutrients listed, here are some examples of where a vegan can find these nutrients to include in their meals.
Iron: Beans (pair with vitamin C foods and avoid pairing with calcium foods to absorb more iron!) Examples might be: beans and rice with lime (vitamin C), cilantro, and salsa or a “loaded bowl” (see image below) with quinoa and black beans and vegetables including tomatoes (vitamin C).
Calcium: Fortified imitation milks (almond milk, soy milk, etc.) or dark leafy green vegetables (althought we don’t absorb as much from the vegetables!).
Zinc: Beans, peas, and nuts (I’m personally a huge almond fan and usually have a handful a day as a snack).
Omega-3’s: Walnuts and ground flaxseed. Add ground flaxseed to to smoothies, sauces, or sprinkle on salads – just watch out because it gets gummy when mixed with liquids, which is why it’s a great vegan egg replacement in baking.
Vitamin D: Sunshine! Fortified foods (milk imitators).
Vitamin B12: Fortified foods.
Iodine: Iodized table salt.
I also recommend that someone who is following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, ask their physician to pull a “vitamin panel” to check their levels of vitamin D and B12 (and others) every now and again just to make sure that deficiencies are being kept at bay!
I hope you found this helpful. If you have other ideas or ways to incorporate these important nutrients, please post your thoughts, meal ideas, and recipes!
Images from: ChooseMyPlate.gov, Microsoft Free Images, and personal photographs.