There can be a lot of questions around vegetarian (no meat), vegan (no animal derived products), and plant-based (largely, but not strictly, vegetarian) eating. Here are some tips to get you started.
Eat a balanced diet, and you will have no problem getting enough protein.
Plant based sources of protein include beans, legumes, nuts. Grains and tubers like potatoes also contain some protein. Grain-like seeds like quinoa are complete proteins.
Protein combining, where you combine legumes and grains, was once thought to need to be done at each and every meal for vegetarians to get all essential amino acids. However, research shows this need not be so strict. So long as you are getting all your amino acids in a day, not necessarily at the same meal, you won’t be deficient. However, you may find that meals that have complete proteins tend to be more satiating and appetizing.
If you are just starting out with major dietary changes and are a “newbie” at nutrition, I recommend meeting with a dietician or natural health care provider. There also are handy ways of tracking your dietary intake, such as inputting all of your food into a nutrition-app. This way you can see if you are meeting your protein and other nutritional needs for the day.
If you’re going completely vegan, you’re going to need supplemental B vitamins.
While it is actually not that hard to come by iron and protein on a plant based diet, there is one nutrient you just can’t get without animal products or supplementation: B-12. If you are vegetarian and can eat dairy or eggs regularly, that covers you. Since those foods are prohibited on a vegan diet, you will need to consume either fortified foods or a vitamin supplement. The good news is that foods like some tofu, nutritional yeast, and some cereals have B vitamins added. However risk of toxicity from B-12 is extremely low, so it’s perfectly safe to take vitamin B-12 as a preventive measure. If in doubt, you can have your doctor check your blood levels.
If you are just starting out, have a plan and follow through, but don’t rush into changing your entire diet overnight.
Remember, you are not not the only one who needs to adjust to a new diet, your entire intestinal microbiome needs to adjust (excessive gas can be a result of the adjustment in the bacteria). There is variation in the intestinal-bacteria make up of carnivores and plant eaters. Most humans have both, but if you are used to eating a lot of meat, yours may not have yet grown the ability to digest the increased amount of fibrous material in a plant-based diet. As a result, some people think they can’t tolerate a vegetarian diet, when really the problem is their gut hasn’t adjusted.
Start with a day or two of vegetarian eating a week and pay attention to how your body reacts as you progress to no meat. This will assist in mitigating serious reactions and make long lasting change more attainable.
Finally, there are some people who have an immune reaction or allergy to meat, dairy or eggs. These people should stop eating the things they are sensitive to, as much as possible and a gradual approach would likely hurt more than help.
Healthy eating “rules” still apply
A balanced, healthy diet is even more necessary when you are restricting what you can eat.
Be especially wary of processed foods. Many of the commercially available meat substitutes are chemical concoctions heavy in soy isolates (“bad soy”) and lots of chemicals. Keep these to a minimum. Fried or sugary foods should still be eaten sparingly.
Make sure your macronutrient intake is balanced. It is easy to fall into a carbohydrate-heavy diet when eating “plant based” so be mindful that you are getting enough healthy fats and protein. Be careful that refined sugars and flours don’t become an outsized part of your diet. Whole food and clean eating is still best!
A cultural perspective
In Chinese culture, there is an emphasis on balancing flavors, which provides the eater with a wide variety of phytonutrients. The Chinese also have a very complex medical system, which details among other things, what happens when diet goes wrong.
According to Chinese medicine, there are three primary disorders that can arise when you are not getting the right nutrition from a vegetarian diet. These patterns correlate with, but do not exactly match, modern pathologies. They are spleen and heart blood deficiency, liver blood (and yin) deficiency and qi deficiency. Spleen and heart blood deficiency can correlate roughly with iron deficiency anemia. You’ll see symptoms show up starting with fatigue and tiredness, and eventually progressing to palpitations and anxiety if untreated. Liver blood deficiency correlates roughly with the advancement of B-12 deficiency: you’ll see symptoms like fatigue, and odd symptoms like tingling in the limbs, brain fog, and visual disturbances. Qi deficiency is a more general category encompassing poor diet, and may show symptoms like bloating and tiredness. See your healthcare provider if you have any new symptoms.
To combat this, Chinese dietary therapy prescribes “blood building foods” that are high in the iron and other nutrients vegetarians have a propensity to lack. It also emphasizes cooked vegetables that are a little bit easier to digest. You can always talk to your acupuncturist if you have any questions about Chinese dietary therapy.
That said, the Chinese have a long history of plant based eating, and traditional Chinese cuisine provides an abundant variety of options for the eater.
There are health benefits to be gained by even making moderate changes
If you have high cholesterol, vegan diets are a way to avoid dietary cholesterol. With hormones, antibiotics and additives being so common in meat products, a plant- based diet is a good way to avoid or reduce these potentially harmful substances. Plant based diets are recommended as a preventative for many of the chronic metabolic disorders that are now prevalent. For further reading see: https://www.ajconline.org/article/S0002-9149(98)00718-8/fulltext
By Beth Bloomfield, L.AC., MS