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A vegetarian's guide to healthy living

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Fall is here, and with it comes cooler weather, beautiful leaves and lots of delicious seasonal produce. From animal protein to vegetables, the cost, availability, personal preference, and food safety may all play a role in why you choose to eat the foods you do. With more individuals adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, it’s important to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients your body needs. Planning ahead to consume a variety of plant-based foods and supplementing where appropriate, are keys to maintaining good health year-round. 

To Meat or Not to Meat

Meat is a complete protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. Lean meats are also a good source of B vitamins, which are important for metabolizing fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
 
Meat may or may not be the focus of your meal. You may have chosen to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of reasons. There are multiple classifications of vegetarians, dependent on the food groups consumed. A vegetarian typically does not consume meat (beef, pork, lamb, poultry or fish), and may or may not consume dairy, eggs and other animal-derived products. 

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Vitamin B12

Meat and Alternatives such as beef, pork, fish, eggs, and poultry are typically recognized as sources of protein, well-known for aiding in muscle regeneration. Less-be known, these animal-based foods are also a source of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential to the function of the nervous system, formation of blood, and the synthesis of DNA in tissues. It is found only in animal-based foods, so it is important for vegetarians to consume fortified foods or take a vitamin B12 supplement. Low intake and/or absorption may lead to pale skin, fatigue, shortness of breath, or memory loss.

Iron

Although iron is only required in trace amounts, it is the most common deficiency in the world. Iron is found in animal-based foods (such as beef, pork, and clams) in the form of heme iron. Plant-based sources of iron such as spinach, lentils and soybeans contain less absorbable non-heme iron. Although absorption of non-heme iron can be increased by cooking in cast-iron pans and by including sources of vitamin C in your diet, it can also be inhibited by some foods common to a vegetarian diet. Common inhibitors of iron absorption are: phytic acid (found in legumes and whole grains), soy protein, and polyphenols (found in coffee and tea). Iron is a component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in our red blood cells, and we know how crucial oxygen is to life. If iron levels are low, a sufficient amount of oxygen cannot be transported to our tissues, possibly leading to iron-deficiency anemia. Symptoms are fatigue, weakness, pale skin, and impaired cognitive function.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a unique fat-soluble vitamin synthesized in our bodies with exposure to sunlight. However, the dark winter months in the Canadian latitudes do not allow enough exposure to produce an adequate amount of vitamin D, so it must be consumed in our diet. Vitamin D is mainly found in animal-based foods, such as fortified milk, salmon and mackerel. Vitamin D helps to maintain bone heath by regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorous; allowing more to be absorbed when needs are high and less when needs are low.
 
A recent study published September 2014 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tracked almost 15,000 individuals in Britain over a 13-year period. Researchers found higher blood levels of vitamin D were linked to a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and fractures. This demonstrates how important vitamin D is to include in our diets. Other studies have shown that when we don’t consume enough vitamin D, there is increased risk of osteoporosis, cancer and numerous other health conditions.
 
If you have chosen to live by a vegetarian diet, you can still obtain all the healthy benefits of consuming meat and other animal-derived products. A well-planned vegetarian diet is safe for all age groups, even during pregnancy.