Vegetarian Diets, Healing, and Health

Many people are familiar with the truism, "You are what you eat." And a great many also know the old adage, "An apple a day, keeps the doctor away." A Chinese proverb adds to the wisdom imparted in these sayings, and firmly plants the importance of diet as the basis of healing and good health: "He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician." Indeed, one way to appreciate the importance of diet in maintaining a healthy metabolism is to consider the contribution of necessary macro- and micro-nutrients to the processes of healing, as this proverb suggests.

A plant-based diet—more or less

Though vegetarians' diets may be as rich and varied as omnivores' are, vegetarianism is generally recognized as falling into one of four main categories:

Vegan: Only foods derived from plants comprise this diet. No foods derived from animals are included.

Lacto-vegetarian: This diet includes dairy and milk products with plant-based foods. Eggs, all meats and poultry, and fish are excluded from this dietary regime.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Eggs are eaten in this diet, which also includes dairy and milk products, whereas meat, fish and poultry remain excluded.

Flexitarian: The emphasis of this diet is on plant-based foods; however, small amounts of fish, poultry and/or meats, as well as dairy/milk products and eggs are consumed.

In the course of a normal day, our bodies remain constantly vigilant to assaults from bacterial, viral or other infection, or engaged in damage control due to these assaults or overexposure to sun, wind, cold or other environmental factors. Metabolic processes in our bodies are continually being initiated to provide immunity or promote healing. A consistently healthy diet provides the best platform from which to launch counterattacks to the assaults of the natural world, and supplies the components that aid the healing processes and rebuild health.

Our skin, like a dam that wards off a flood of invaders, is our first line of defense and benefits from the macro- and micro-nutrients supplied in a healthful diet. Normal, healthy skin, additionally, prevents energy loss by helping to regulate body temperature and water loss. Maintaining a diet that promotes healthy skin promotes overall good health. In this article we will explore some of the foods in a vegetarian diet necessary to a healthy defense, and a few important processes involved in making the most of the nutrients offered in vegetarian fare.

Some vegetarian basics

Of the four descriptive subtypes of vegetarianism, a vegan diet involves the most disciplined approach, with respect to including foods that supply all the nutrients the body needs. This level of attention need not, however, be a deterrent to the aspiring vegetarian. A diet simply of foods from the Kingdom Plantae can provide both the macronutrients for energy and protein synthesis, and micronutrients for metabolic processes—with the added assurance of supplements making up for those nutrients necessary to optimal health but not found or extremely limited in plant-based foods.

So how does the vegan diet provide the macro- and micro-nutrients necessary for a balanced diet and good health? The fact that several world-class athletes are vegans is good indication there is nothing unhealthy with the vegan diet. Note, however, that the acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges for non-athletes that are cited above differ from those appropriate for vegetarian and non-vegetarian athletes alike: 45-65% for carbs, 20-35% for fats, and 10-35% for proteins—especially those engaged in endurance sports.

Plant pyramid—the vegan bill of fare

The typical vegan food pyramid includes the following categories, on a scale from eating sparingly to eating liberally:

  • Vegetable oils and fats, such as olive and grapeseed oils; sesame, peanut and almond butters; sweets such as honey, blue agave, sweet sorghum, maple or rice syrup;, salt and spices. These should, for the most part, be taken sparingly, but include a wide array of products for a variety of flavors and uses. (Some vegans eliminate honey from their diet as it is derived from bees.)
  • Soy foods such as tofu and soy milk and yogurt; rice milk and nut milks, sometimes referred to by dieticians as "fortified dairy substitutes." These are recommended to be included in 2 to 3 servings per day, eaten moderately.
  • Legumes, seeds, and beans should also be eaten moderately, 2 to 3 servings per day.
  • Whole grains can be taken in fairly generous amounts, and include a variety of products made from oats, rice and wild rice, corn, barley, spelt, teff, and millet, to name a few. Amaranth and quinoa are two grain-like foods that can be substituted by those wishing to avoid true grains. 6 to 11 servings are recommended.
  • The fruit group can be enjoyed liberally, with 2 to 4 generous servings per day.
  • The vegetables complete the vegan food pyramid, and can be enjoyed almost without reserve, with 5–8 servings recommended per day. With the numerous types of vegetables generally available year-round, recipes abound to cover a range of tastes and flavors.

And, as with any diet, 8 to 10 glasses of water per day are highly recommended, more if one is active.

Apart from their ability to sustain and provide athletes with outstanding physical performance, there is ample evidence that vegetarian diets in general are beneficial in guarding against degenerative and chronic health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and coronary heart disease, among others. Vegetarians have also been shown to have lower rates of certain cancers.

It is believed these benefits are conferred not solely because vegetarian diets are low in fat, particularly saturated and trans fats, as well as cholesterol (with the vegan diet being free of cholesterol) while providing essential fatty acids, but also because they are rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

In order to reap the generous health benefits afforded by vegetarianism, certain nutrient needs must be paid careful heed by anyone adhering to a plant-based diet.

Key nutrients for vegans

Be cognizant, when adhering to a vegan or vegetarian diet, of your intake of the following key nutrients:

      • Vitamin B12
      • Vitamin D
      • Calcium
      • Iron
      • Zinc
      • Riboflavin
      • Essential fatty acids

Vitamin B12 is one such nutrient scarce in a strictly plant-based diet—that is, the active form of the vitamin. While a range of foods such as mushrooms, tempeh, miso, and sea vegetables are believed to provide B12, research indicates that the B12 found in these foods is not the active form readily absorbed by the body, but rather, analogue forms. This is important, because dietary research indicates analogue B12 forms interfere with the normal absorption and metabolism of the active vitamin B12.

Also of interest is that while B12 is produced by bacteria in the digestive tract, the contribution of this B12 to nutritional sufficiency is contingent upon a number of poorly understood variables. These factors include one's complement of gut flora, whether or not plant foods "contaminated" with B12-producing bacteria are ingested, and the limited extent to which the B12 produced can be absorbed across the lining of the GI tract.

These issues are of the utmost relevance to strict vegetarians wishing to maintain health, because long-term deficits of this vitamin have been linked to serious neurological problems.

For all these various reasons, vegan dieters are strongly encouraged to take vitamin B12 supplements, such as those found in fortified soy products or cereals, or in a pharmaceutical-grade multivitamin-mineral complex. The forms most easily absorbed are cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, and are often listed as such in product ingredient lists. Nutritional yeast is another option for vegans and other vegetarians, but only that yeast which has been grown on a B12-rich medium will successfully replete B12 levels, and labels should be checked carefully. This vitamin is naturally found in eggs and dairy products, so ovo- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians are more likely to be getting sufficient B12 from those animal sources in their diet.

Vitamin D is the second-most critical nutrient typically found lacking in a vegan diet—indeed, it is often overlooked in the omnivore's diet as well, and it's hard to overstate the far-ranging consequences this oversight has on our health. Under ideal conditions all the D we need is naturally produced in skin exposed to direct sunlight; but a number of factors seriously limit this natural process, not the least of which include latitude and the widespread use of sunscreens, but also advanced age, skin tone, and body mass index.

Vitamin D is obtained most commonly in foods such as fortified cereals, or fortified milk or soy drinks, but many people do not realize that the amount provided by these supplemental foods is far less than optimal. Vitamin D is vital for the proper absorption of calcium, enabling normal growth and mineralization of bone, helping protect older adults from osteoporosis, and modulating neuromuscular and immune function, as well as the reduction of inflammation. Vitamin D levels should be regularly tested, and if levels fall below the optimal range of 50–70 ng/mL, supplements should be used to bring levels up.

Calcium levels may also be low in a vegan's diet, depending on food choices. If no animal products (the most common source of calcium in the West), are consumed, nondairy calcium sources can be obtained in a variety of plant foods as well as from calcium-fortified products. It should be kept in mind, though, that calcium is absorbed more effectively in smaller amounts, as from several small servings from calcium-rich foods throughout the day, rather than in a single large dose. Bok choy, kale, collard greens, broccoli, legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils, and blackstrap molasses all provide calcium naturally. Fortified cereals, orange juice, and soy products are also good calcium sources. Calcium supplements may be necessary if one's diet is not providing sufficient easily-absorbed calcium. Dairy products in the lacto-vegetarian diet generally provide sufficient levels of calcium to meet nutritional needs.

Iron is often found in sufficient quantities in vegetarian diets; however, a difference in absorption rates between animal and plant iron sources may pose a problem. The iron supplied by meat, poultry and fish sources is more readily absorbed and metabolized than the plant-based forms. Vitamin C helps overcome this absorption difference and is important for assimilation of iron from plant sources. Eating citrus fruits, broccoli, or tomatoes, all rich vitamin C sources, together with iron-rich plants assures that sufficient iron is absorbed and metabolized. Vitamin C supplements are also a good choice. The iron-rich plant group includes soybeans, legumes (lentils, peas, beans), spinach, blackstrap molasses, potatoes in their skins, prunes and prune juice, raisins, and apricots. Fortified cereals and whole grains are also good non-meat sources of iron.

Zinc is likewise widely found in plant foods but is not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal sources. As mentioned above, zinc is a critical co-factor in enzymes that regulate DNA and RNA processing, as well as in skin repair and growth. Sufficient zinc in one's diet is crucial in skin health. Plant sources include fortified whole grains and cereals, legumes (peanuts, lentils, beans, and peas), other nuts and seeds, and a number of soy products often fortified with zinc. These include tempeh, tofu, soy milk and soy-based meat substitutes. Zinc appears to be more readily absorbed when consumed from foods that have been leavened, fermented, or sprouted. This type of processing reduce phytates, a family of compounds that tend to inhibit zinc absorption. Unprocessed wheat bran contains high levels of phytates that can also inhibit absorption of dietary iron, as well as zinc. For this reason large quantities of unprocessed wheat bran should be avoided.

Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, is a micronutrient with a key role in energy production through assisting in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. B2 is important in the function of flavoproteins, substances which possess important oxidation-reduction energy transfer characteristics. Riboflavin is easily passed from the body in urination, but is also easily replaced in fortified cereals, in soy milk, almonds, bananas, asparagus, legumes, sweet potatoes, tofu, wheat germ and enriched breads. Animal sources for the ovo- or lacto-ovo-vegetarian include milk and eggs.

Essential fatty acids are naturally found in fish and eggs, but can be obtained in a vegan diet with flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts, soybeans and soybean oil, and canola oil. Essential fatty acids are integral components of healthy cell membranes, the barriers protecting cells from harmful invaders, but also the medium through which metabolic products move into and out of cells in the process of normal metabolism. While listed last here, they are by no means least important, and taking a supplement containing the omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA and EPA in particular is a wise choice for vegetarians. These two omega-3's are found in limited quantities in vegetarian diets and are necessary for optimal eye health, neurological function, and countering inflammation.

Caring about what you eat—integral to the vegetarian way of life

These are the nutrients that may be lacking in a strict vegan diet; however, through careful meal planning and with the help of supplements, an entirely meatless or vegan diet can supply the lifelong good health and disease-fighting benefits vegetarians on the whole enjoy. For those vegetarians who include milk or eggs, or the occasional portion of fish, poultry, or meat in their diet, the health benefits are equally many and well-founded.

Vegetarians cite many reasons for choosing plant-based diets. Whether for philosophical, environmental, health reasons or otherwise, there is no need to let simple fear of nutritional inadequacy limit one's personal preferences, when it comes to vegetarianism. The basic guidelines for a healthy vegetarian diet are to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure the nutritional demands of the body are met, to drink plenty of water, and depending upon how strict a vegetarian diet you prefer, to include the necessary supplements for good health. It's often said that if you want to live a long and healthy life, care must be given to what you eat. Equally sage, when you are being careful about what you eat, is being certain to take care of yourself.