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Quinn on Nutrition: Appropriate vegetarian diets

Jan. 30, 2017

What three actions — if we decided to do them — would go a long way to make us a healthier nation? At a recent health summit, Dr. Ali Kahn, Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said it pretty much boils down to this basic prescription:

—Stop smoking (or don’t start).

—Get 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

—Eat 7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Dr. Kahn then took a show of hands to see how many of us actually eat 7 servings (about 4 to 5 cups) of fruits and vegetables each day. Uhhh….

Some folks do, including many who follow a vegetarian eating style. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), an estimated 3.3 percent of Americans are vegetarians; they primarily eat a plant-based diet. Some vegetarians include eggs and dairy foods on their menus, some do not. And almost half of vegetarians report being vegan; they avoid all animal foods including eggs, dairy and sometimes even honey (it’s an animal food).

What is the nutritional and health impact of eating a vegetarian diet? Here are some facts from the latest position paper on this topic from the AND:

Vegetarian (including vegan) diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate if they are appropriately planned. A soda and french fries is not an appropriately planned vegetarian diet, for example. Rather, a plan that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is more on target, say nutrition experts.

Most vegetarian diets contain enough protein to meet one’s needs, especially when legumes such as beans and soy products are eaten regularly. One exception: Fruitarian diets — those based mostly on fruit — are typically low in protein and other essential nutrients.

Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians tend to have lower stores of iron — a nutrient essential for carrying oxygen to every nook and cranny of our bodies. This may not always be a disadvantage, however. Too much stored iron can be a risk factor for metabolic syndrome, a condition that can lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Iron from plant sources is not absorbed as efficiently as the iron in animal foods. Yet recent studies have found that the body can adapt over time to become more efficient at absorbing iron from non-animal foods.

Although many plant-based foods such as spinach and Swiss chard contain calcium, only about 5 percent of this essential mineral is absorbed into the body due to the high oxalate content of these foods. Vegetarians who avoid dairy foods therefore need to be vigilant to consume calcium sources from low oxalate vegetables such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage and bok choy. Other plant sources of calcium for vegetarians include tofu made with calcium salts, figs, almonds white beans, oranges and tahini (a condiment made from sesame seeds).

Need more expert information on vegetarian diets? Check out the consumer website provided by the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group at www.vndpg.org.

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