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Vegetarians in Paradise
Words from Other Birds

Last month we introduced Dr. Jay Lavine, a savvy, vegan ophthalmologist who resides in Arizona. His previous article touted the many benefits of whole grains, especially whole wheat. This month he explores the many foods that offer important vitamins and minerals needed to maintain optimum health. Dr. Jay has his own web site focused on vegetarian nutrition as a preventive to many health problems. To access his site, check Questions and Answers on Vegetarian Nutrition


by Jay B. Lavine, M.D.

You've made the transition to a vegetarian diet, and regardless of your reasons, you know it will be good for your health. Contrary to popular opinion among the meat-eating public, a vegetarian diet does not put you at high risk for nutritional deficiency. In fact, vegetarians tend to get much more of many important minerals and vitamins, such as magnesium and vitamins C and E. But a vegetarian diet does represent a change, and as with any change, you have to learn the ropes to avoid entanglement. So let's see how to make your diet as healthy as possible.

Iron and zinc are two minerals to which vegetarians should pay close attention. Iron is important for red blood cell production, and it also supports the immune system. Mild iron deficiency may not cause anemia but may still make you feel run down and may interfere with your thinking. Vegetarians often consume more iron than omnivores do, but the iron in plant foods is not as well absorbed. How can you optimize your iron status? Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) greatly increases the absorption of iron.

Some foods, such as many dark, leafy green vegetables, potatoes, watermelon, and strawberries, contain both iron and vitamin C. But you can also consume vitamin-C rich foods, like citrus fruits or juices, with your meal, and that will help greatly. Cooking in cast iron pans will also supply iron. On the other hand, tea inhibits iron absorption. Dairy products contain almost no iron and may even inhibit iron absorption somewhat, so don't make the mistake of eating a lot of dairy.

Zinc, the other mineral vegetarians should consider, has a number of good sources. One study showed that vegetarians who consume a fair amount of whole grains and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts) maintain a good zinc status. Other good sources include sesame and pumpkin seeds, asparagus, spinach, mushrooms, and a number of nuts.

Vegans need to watch their calcium intake. Watch out for misleading information in this area. Calcium deficiency does occur. Try to consume four or five servings a day of calcium-rich foods. Spinach, sesame seeds, and tahini are not good sources of calcium. The calcium from spinach is poorly absorbed. Most of the calcium in sesame seeds is found in the hull, which is not usually eaten, and even if it were, the absorption is probably poor. Good sources of calcium include kale, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, broccoli, tofu made with calcium sulfate, almonds, figs, blackstrap molasses, and fortified soy milk. If you can't get enough , then supplement--it's better for you than dairy. Calcium citrate is a form that is felt not to increase your risk of kidney stones.

Two other provisos: vitamin B12 and "vitamin" D. There are many myths about vitamin B12 sources. You have your choice between fortified foods and supplements. Dairy products and eggs contain some vitamin B12, but it is probably not as well absorbed as that from animal flesh. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for most people is 2.4 micrograms a day. For those who want to supplement less often, I suggest 1,000 micrograms once a week for vegans and half that amount for vegetarians who consume dairy products and/or eggs. As for vitamin D, it is really a steroid hormone that forms in the skin after sun exposure. If you don't get much sun, try products like fortified soy milk. Mushrooms contain some vitamin D, but not enough to fully meet your needs.

Butter or margarine? Try to avoid both. Learn to adjust your tastebuds so you no longer crave the taste of fat. Myths in this area are prevalent, but butter raises your cholesterol level more than margarine does and probably puts you at higher risk for certain chronic health problems. In fact, try as much as possible to avoid all added oils and fats. You can easily meet your small dietary requirement for fat by consuming the fat naturally present in whole foods. Whole wheat flour, for example, derives 5% of its calories from fat.

The Lifestyle Heart Trial of Dean Ornish, M.D., showed that a lifestyle change regimen that included this type of diet was able to reverse hardening of the arteries in the heart. A no-added-fat diet not only helps lower your cholesterol level, but it also reduces the coagulability (clot-forming tendency) of the blood, one of the factors that leads to hardening of the arteries. Research shows that consuming large amounts of any vegetable oil will cause this increase in coagulability. How do you cook in this type of diet? Just liquid braise in vegetable broth or water instead of sautéing in oil!

In summary, there is nothing complicated about optimizing your vegetarian diet. Include a good variety of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and some nuts and seeds. Make sure you eat enough. Then just enjoy it!

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