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Going vegetarian

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The payoff: Better health

While many people choose vegetarianism for philosophical reasons, good health is reason enough to join the 12 million American vegetarians. Among the rewards:

Longer life. Research suggests that vegetarians do indeed live longer and healthier lives, partly because they also tend to exercise more, smoke less and abstain from alcohol and illicit drugs.

Better heart health. Vegetarian diets can be low in fat, cholesterol and saturated fat, so they tend to reduce cholesterol levels. And because the diets are rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium and fiber, they also tend to lower blood pressure.

Less fat. Vegetarians are generally leaner, which in itself helps protect against adult-onset diabetes, gallstones and kidney stones.

Lower cancer risk. Cancer-preventing nutrients, such as vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber and phytochemicals are plentiful in fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of a vegetarian diet.

Whether you eat meat daily or are a near-vegetarian already, you can probably improve your diet—and your health—by eating more meatless meals. But remember, making the switch to total vegetarianism is not as simple as cutting the meat from your diet. If you decide to become a vegetarian (a person who doesn’t eat any meat, fish or fowl), it’s important to understand and apply sound nutrition principles. Here’s what you should know:

Protein

With proper food choices, your vegetarian diet can provide adequate protein. Dairy products and eggs are high-quality protein sources. But aged cheese and other whole-milk dairy foods can increase your saturated fat and cholesterol intake above those of meat eaters, so choose skim or 1 percent dairy products. Also, consider limiting high-cholesterol egg yolks to three or four a week.

Soy also supplies high-quality protein. So do beans, corn, rice, nuts, seeds and whole grains when eaten in combination (not necessarily at the same meal) throughout the day. But go easy on seeds and nuts—they’re loaded with calories and fat.

Calcium

Excess protein intake interferes with calcium absorption, so vegetarians don’t need as much calcium as people who consume meat. Dairy products are the best source of calcium. But tofu and leafy greens, such as kale, can add calcium to vegan diets (vegans don’t eat any animal products, eliminating all dairy, eggs and even honey from their diets).

Vitamin D

Fortified dairy products supply vitamin D, so vegetarians can easily meet requirements. But vegans who shun the sun (sun exposure prompts the body to manufacture vitamin D) may need a supplement.

Iron

Iron-fortified cereals, legumes, dried fruit, whole grains and dark green, leafy vegetables can supply iron in vegetarian diets. Include vitamin C foods with meals to boost your iron absorption. Limit tea, on the other hand, because it interferes with iron absorption.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found in combination with animal protein, so it’s not a concern for vegetarians. But it may be hard for vegans to get the B12 they need. If you’re a vegan, get your dose of B12 from fortified breakfast cereals and soy beverages. (Note: Watch out for spirulina, seaweed, tempeh and other fermented foods. Though they are touted as good sources of B12, they contain B12-like substances that cannot be used by the body.)

Want to get started?

Try these tips:

Meatless Monday. Begin by eating more meatless meals each week. Plan your breakfasts, lunches and dinners ahead of time and designate certain days of the week as vegetarian days.

Chop, chop. Dice, dice. Make life easier by investing in a food processor. When you need to dice an onion, chop two and store the second in an airtight container for next time.

Stock your pantry. Keep seeds, nuts and dried fruits on hand. Stock vegetarian soups, stocks, pasta sauces and canned beans. Be sure to have plenty of whole-grain cereals and instant brown rice on hand, and don’t forget eggs and egg substitutes.

Start with some favorites. Do you already have favorite vegetarian foods that you could eat more often—a delicious vegetable lasagna, say? Make it more often!

Buy prepared vegetarian items. Take a second look at supermarket shelves for frozen vegetarian entrees, meatless ravioli and satisfying veggie burgers.

Try some simple substitutions. Stir-fry with tofu instead of meat. Make frozen fruit bars from juice. Sprinkle seeds and nuts into muffin batter, over yogurt and onto salads. Add peas, diced peppers or corn kernels to grains.


© 2014 Dowden Health Media