By Darren Main • June 2001
There is no doubt that eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet is a healthy alternative to the American staples of a “burger and fries”, but it is essential to do it in a way that is safe and well thought-out. In order to know what you are doing, you have to understand a few things about nutrition and in particular about protein. First of all, protein is a catch-all term for one component of our diet. All foods are made up of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins) The protein part of the equation is made up of 22 amino acids. Of these amino acids eight are essential and 14 are non-essential.
I hope I haven’t lost you, because it gets a bit trickier. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body. In other words you can eat a bunch of things that don’t have the exact amino acid, and your body will magically turn that hodge-podge of food into the amino acids it needs. Essential amino acids, on the other, hand need to be acquired directly through food. Our bodies are incapable of producing them, so it is essential that we get them through our diet.
In order to live a healthy life, you need to get all your amino acids, but you can get these amino acids from a variety of sources. Meat provides us with all of the amino acids we need in one lump sum. There is not a lot of planning involved. If you just ate a piece of prime rib, you got all the amino acids your body needs, end of story.
This sounds great, but there are some draw backs to eating meat. First of all, meat is not just protein. It also has fat. Even lean meat has fat, and animal fat is never the healthy kind. With the exception of hydrogenated oils such as margarine, saturated fat (the really bad stuff) comes almost exclusively from animals. Also, not all protein is easily broken down, and animal proteins are more difficult than many plant proteins for the body to use. Lastly, the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) that your doctor warned you about is derived almost exclusively from animal fat, so the less meat and animal fat (such as cheese and butter) you eat, the better off you will be on the cholesterol front.
Being a healthy vegetarian is much more than abstaining from meat. While cutting out animal products will help remove many of the bad things from you diet, you will still need to get all of the good things that meats offer without the convenience of one simple source. For example, beans are a great source of many amino acids, but it is not until you combine them with something like rice that you get a complete protein. Other great sources of protein are yogurt, tofu and soy beverages. There are also a wide variety of protein drink powders on the market, which can help ensure you get all the necessary amino acids.
It is not really as hard as it seems, but it does take a bit of mindfulness in the beginning. Once your body learns how to get protein from these new sources, you will naturally start to crave the foods you need. In the beginning, however, you will want to get a good book on vegetarian eating. I have listed a few below. You may also want to speak with other vegetarians and trade some recipes. Also, take a look at Veggies Unite for some valuable information. (www.vegweb.com)
One last thought, try not to think in terms of black and white. You may want to become a vegetarian slowly or start by cutting out red meat. Or you may not want to become a full-on vegetarian, but simply reduce the amount of meat you are eating. Take it slowly, and proceed in a conscious and intelligent way. As always, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about any major changes in your lifestyle. He or she might have some helpful advice as well.