Go Green With Your Diet: Your Heart and Waistline Will Thank Youby Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer
Going green isn’t just about being environmentally friendly—you should also think about going green with your diet. Plant-based diets have been linked to a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension, and are rich in important nutrients. Here's some tips on going green!
Protein: vegan sources
It is a common misconception that people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are deficient in protein. A person following a plant-based diet can easily meet their nutritional needs for protein with plant-based proteins. Great vegan sources of protein include tofu, soy, lentils, and tempeh. Nuts and seeds are also good sources of protein, including soy milk and nut milks such as cashew or almond milk.
Protein: vegetarian sources
In addition to plant-based proteins, vegetarians include animal products such as cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and eggs in their diets. It was once thought that vegetarians needed to combine plant proteins at one meal to create a complete protein, but we now know that as long as vegetarians consume balanced diets with a wide variety of plant-based foods throughout the day, they are most likely consuming enough amino acids to make complete proteins.
This vitamin is essential for red blood cell formation and nervous system function. Deficiency can have serious consequences, including memory loss. Vegetarians can get B12 from dairy products and eggs, and some cereals and plant-based milks. Unfortunately, there are no fortified plant foods that provide significant levels of B12. If you plan to follow a vegan diet, talk with your healthcare provider about vitamin B12 supplementation.
Vitamin D is essential for bone health, immune health, and muscle and nervous system function. In addition to obtaining vitamin D from sunlight exposure, vegetarians can get vitamin D from fortified dairy products and egg yolks. Vegans can consume commercially-fortified products such as orange juice, cereals, and plant-based milks. Vitamin D supplementation may be necessary—talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.
Most research indicates that people following a plant-based diet have adequate iron stores, though children and women are at an increased risk of deficiency. (Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; July 2009) Good plant-based sources of iron include leafy green vegetables, tofu, grains, legumes, and enriched breakfast cereals. Consuming vitamin C along with dietary iron sources can help to increase iron absorption.
Though we typically think of dairy products as the sole source of calcium in our diets, this mineral can also be found in plant sources. Plant-based food sources of calcium include leafy greens, almonds, broccoli, butternut squash, beans, and oranges. Calcium-fortified foods such as plant-based milks, tofu, and orange juice, can be an excellent source of calcium.
Zinc is an important mineral that is essential for immune system function as well as our body’s DNA structure. It has been found that people who follow plant-based diets tend to have slightly lower zinc levels in their blood. (Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; July 2009) To increase your zinc consumption, consume dairy products or nuts, beans, soy, and whole grains.
The bottom line
Following a plant-based diet can have numerous health benefits. It is important to consume a well-balanced variety of foods that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to ensure that you are meeting your nutritional needs. Talk to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian if you need help with meal planning.