A balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can provide many health benefits. These diets have been associated with weight loss, better control of blood sugar levels, a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of certain types of cancer. However, it can be a challenge to maintain a well-balanced vegetarian diet that provides all the nutrients you need. This article discovers some of the most common mistakes people make on a vegan or vegetarian diet, and how to avoid them.
1. Assume that Vegan or Vegetarian Products are Always Healthier:
Unfortunately, the fact that a food product is labeled “vegetarian” or “vegan” does not necessarily mean that it is healthier than the regular alternative. For example, almond milk is a popular variety of milk that is produced from plants and is often a staple in vegan diets. However, while almond milk is low in calories and enriched with several important vitamins and minerals, it is not necessarily healthier than cow’s milk. For example, 1 cup (240 ml) of low-fat cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, while the same amount of unsweetened almond milk contains only 1 gram. Sweetened almond milk can also be high in added sugar, with 16 grams of sugar in just 1 cup. Other vegetarian products, such as soy-based vegetable burgers, medallions and other meat alternatives, are often very processed, and contain a long list of artificial ingredients. Therefore, they are often not healthier than other non-vegetarian processed foods. Despite being vegetarian, these products are often also high in calories, however, they lack the protein, fiber and nutrients necessary for a balanced meal. While these products can facilitate the transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet, it is best to consume them in moderation with a diet rich in nutritious and balanced foods
Summary: Many foods marketed as vegetarians or vegans are often highly processed, high in sugar or lacking in nutrients. If you include these products in your diet, I recommend you consume them in moderation.
2. Not Getting Enough Vitamin B12:
Vitamin B12 plays several important roles in the body. It is important in the creation of red blood cells and DNA, among other processes. Unfortunately, the main sources of vitamin B12 are animal products, such as meat, poultry, shellfish, eggs and dairy products. For this reason, vegetarians have a higher risk of having vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, memory problems and numbness. It can also lead to megaloblastic anemia, a condition caused by having red blood cell levels that are much lower than normal.
“Unfortunately, high folic acid intake can actually mask vitamin B12 deficiency, hiding symptoms until the damage becomes irreversible”.
However, there are foods and supplements available that can help vegetarians meet their vitamin B12 needs. In addition to animal products, fortified foods and certain types of edible seaweed also contain vitamin B12. Vegetarians should monitor their vitamin B12 intake carefully and consider taking supplements if their needs are not met through the diet.
Summary: Vegetarians and vegans have an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, so be sure to consume fortified foods or B12 supplements.
3. Replace Meat with Cheese:
One of the easiest ways to make almost any vegetarian dish is to take out the meat and replace it with cheese. When it comes to flavor, the exchange works well for snacks, salads, pasta and many other dishes. However, although cheese contains a good amount of protein, vitamins and minerals, it does not replace the wide range of nutrients found in meat. An ounce (28 grams) of meat, for example, contains four times the amount of iron and twice the amount of zinc that an ounce of cheddar cheese contains. Cheese also contains less protein and more calories than meat. In fact, an ounce per ounce, cheese contains only about 80% of the protein found in chicken, but almost 2.5 times the calories (15, 16). Instead of simply replacing meat with cheese, you should include a variety of plant foods in your diet to meet your nutrient needs. Chickpeas, quinoa, tempeh, lentils, beans and nuts are excellent options to help complete a vegetarian diet.
Summary: Instead of simply replacing meat with cheese, be sure to also include a wide range of plant foods in your diet to provide important nutrients.
4. Eat Too Few Calories:
Many foods and food groups are off limits for vegans and vegetarians, which can make it difficult to meet caloric needs for those who follow this lifestyle. In fact, vegans and vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories than people who eat meat and vegetables. One study compared the nutritional quality of 1,475 people, including vegans, vegetarians, including vegetarians who ate fish, people who ate meat and plants, and people who ate meat only once a week. Vegans had the lowest calorie intake in all groups, consuming 600 calories less than people who ate meat and plants. Vegetarians had a slightly higher caloric intake than vegans, but consumed 263 fewer calories than people who ate meat and plants. Calories are the main source of energy for the body, and your body needs a certain amount to function. Restricting calories too much can lead to several negative side effects, such as nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and a slower metabolism.
Summary: Vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower calorie intake than people who eat meat and plants. If you are following any of these diets, make sure it is meeting your caloric needs.
5. Do not Drink Enough Water:
Drinking enough water is important for everyone, but it can be especially important for those who eat a lot of fiber, including vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians tend to have a higher fiber intake, since fiber-rich legumes, vegetables and whole grains are staple foods in a healthy vegetarian diet. One study found that people who eat meat and plants eat about 27 grams of fiber per day, while vegans and vegetarians eat about 41 grams and 34 grams, respectively. Drinking water when fiber is consumed is important because it can help move the fibers through the digestive tract and prevent problems such as gas, bloating and constipation. Fiber consumption is very important for health and has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. Current guidelines recommend that women consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day, and men consume at least 38 grams. To make sure you’re drinking enough water, you should drink it when you feel thirsty, and distribute your water intake throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Summary: Vegans and vegetarians often eat a lot of fiber. Drinking enough water can help prevent digestive problems associated with increased fiber intake, such as gas, bloating and constipation.
6. Forget the Iron:
Meat is a good source of many important vitamins and minerals, including iron. For example, a 3 oz (85 grams) serving of ground beef supplies 14% of the iron you need for the entire day. In addition, meat contains heme iron, a type of iron that your body can easily absorb. Vegetable sources of iron contain non-heme iron, which your body cannot absorb so easily. Nonheme iron is present in many types of fruits, vegetables, cereals and beans. Because of this, vegetarians have an increased risk of developing iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which there are not enough red blood cells in the body. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness. However, a well-planned vegetarian diet full of iron-rich foods can meet your daily needs. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, be sure to consume plenty of good sources of iron, including lentils, beans, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, oats and green leaves. In addition, pairing iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C can improve non-heme iron absorption. Vitamin C is found in most fruits and vegetables, so including a plate of vegetables, salad or piece of fruit with your meals can help increase iron absorption.
Summary: Vegetable foods contain non-heme iron, which the body cannot absorb, as well as heme iron found in meat. Vegetarians should include iron-rich foods in the diet and pair them with vitamin C to increase absorption.
7. Not Eating Enough Whole Foods:
The fact that a food product is vegetarian or vegan does not mean that it is good for you. There are plenty of processed foods available in the supermarket that do not contain meat or animal products. However, they often do not contribute nutritionally to your diet. Instead of eating these processed foods, use your vegetarian diet as an opportunity to reduce the consumption of processed foods and increase the consumption of whole and nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Increasing the intake of these foods will help you get the valuable vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need to help prevent nutrient deficiencies. Eating whole foods instead of processed foods can also give you other benefits, such as increased metabolism. One study measured the metabolism of 17 participants after eating a meal made with processed foods or whole foods. Both groups felt equally full after the meal, but the group that ate whole foods burned almost twice as many calories after the meal as the group that ate processed foods. To start including more whole foods in your diet, I recommend you exchange the refined grains for whole grains, and limit the amount of processed and packaged foods you eat. Also, try adding more vegetables and fruits to your meals and snacks throughout the day.
Summary: Vegetarian diets should be rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods will help you maximize nutrient intake and promote a balanced diet.
8. Eat a Low Calcium Diet:
Calcium is an important mineral that your body needs to keep your bones and teeth strong, help your muscles work efficiently and support the function of your nervous system. A calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak and porous bones and increases the risk of bone fractures. Although calcium is found in a variety of foods, the best known source of calcium is dairy products. People who do not consume dairy products should control their calcium intake and include other foods high in calcium in their diet. Calcium-rich foods include kale, kale, broccoli, bok choy, almonds, figs and oranges. Enriched foods can also be a good source of calcium. You can get all the calcium you need if you incorporate some portions of these foods into your meals and snacks throughout the day.
Summary: People who do not consume milk or dairy products should consume other calcium-rich foods to meet their calcium needs.
9. Underestimate the Importance of Planning Meals:
Regardless of whether you are going to cook at home or if you are going to have dinner outside, some additional planning is required to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Meal plans are especially useful if you are in the transition phase of your diet to the vegetarian or vegan diet. Planning meals can help facilitate the transition and make it easier for you to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet. When you are going to eat outside or when you are traveling, detailed meal planning becomes especially important. Some restaurants offer limited options for vegetarians, so looking at the menu beforehand can help you make decisions with prior information and select the most nutritious options available. In addition, planning makes it a habit to find some vegetarian recipes every week and cook them on your own.
Summary: Planning meals in advance and knowing what your options are when dining out can make sure you maintain a diverse and balanced diet.
10. Not Eating Enough Protein Foods:
Protein is an essential part of the diet. Your body uses it to help build tissues, create enzymes and produce hormones. Studies show that eating protein can also promote feelings of fullness, increase muscle mass and reduce cravings. Currently specialists suggest that adults should eat at least 0.8 grams of protein per day for every 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of body weight. For example, an individual weighing 154 pounds (70 kg) would need approximately 56 grams of protein per day. If you are eating animal foods, you will surely find it easy to meet this requirement. A 3-ounce (85 grams) portion of salmon contains 19 grams of protein, while the same amount of roast chicken provides 27 grams. On the other hand, if you are following a vegetarian diet, you may have to make a more conscious effort to eat protein foods that will help you meet your protein requirements. There are plenty of plant foods that contain an amount of protein comparable to the amount you would find in meat. For example, 1 cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein. Beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, tofu and tempeh can cover the daily protein intake that is recreated. Try to incorporate at least one or two of these foods into each meal to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
Summary: Vegetarians should be aware of protein intake and include one or two servings of protein-rich plant foods with each meal.
11. Not Getting Enough Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of the diet. It has been shown to reduce triglycerides in the blood, relieve inflammation and protect against dementia. Fatty fish and fish oil are the most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids. They contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the two forms of omega-3 fatty acids that have proven to be the most beneficial. On the other hand, plant foods contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that the body must convert to DHA and EPA in order to use it. Unfortunately, your body is only able to convert about 5% of ALA to EPA and less than 0.5% to DHA. To meet the needs of omega-3 while following a vegetarian diet, you should consume a good amount of ALA-rich foods or consider taking a plant-based omega-3 supplement such as seaweed oil. Foods higher in ALA’s omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, nuts, hemp seeds, flax seeds, Brussels sprouts and perilla oil. You should include some portions of these foods in your diet every day so that you can easily meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs.
Summary: Vegetable foods contain ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that your body can only use in small amounts. Vegetarians should consume a good amount of ALA-rich foods, or use a herbal supplement.
12. Eat too Many Refined Carbohydrates:
Many vegetarians fall into the trap of replacing meat with refined carbohydrates. Unfortunately, pasta, bread, bagels, cakes and cookies often end up as main ingredients in a poorly planned vegetarian diet. During processing, refined grains shed the healthy fiber found in whole grains. Fiber helps prevent chronic diseases, maintains a feeling of fullness and slows the absorption of sugar to maintain stable blood sugar levels. The high consumption of refined carbohydrates has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, as well as an increase in belly fat. To maximize nutrients in your diet, change refined grains such as white bread, pasta and white rice to whole grains such as quinoa, oats, brown rice and buckwheat. Also, make sure you’re combining whole grains with lots of whole fruits, vegetables and legumes to keep your diet balanced and nutritious.
Summary: Instead of replacing meat with many refined carbohydrates, vegetarians should consume whole grains as part of a healthy diet.
A balanced vegan or vegetarian diet can be very healthy and nutritious. However, these diets can also lead to nutrient deficiencies and potential health problems if they are not well planned. If in your case you just started eating this way, check out this article. To achieve a healthy diet whether vegan or vegetarian, you simply have to eat a lot of whole foods and make sure you’re regularly consuming some key nutrients.