Vegetarians are not nutritionally invincible.
NUTRITION Perhaps you've seen Vegetarian Man. Flying from meal to meal, he gastronomically repels deadly foes like obesity, high-cholesterol and diabetes. Their missiles bounce off his chest like Nerf® Balls. But here are two surprises. The Vegetarian Man disguise is not a costume; rather, it's the notion that he is invincible. Secondly, his mild-mannered alter ego is likely in front of a computer, reading this article right now.
People envision vegetarians as tofu-toting emaciated and starving fanatics. Actually, we vegetarians are completely capable of getting full… of ourselves sometimes. You see, because we abstain from meat, we might over-compensate with carbohydrates. That's fundamentally a scientific word for energy reserve. A moderate amount of carbs have beneficial uses throughout our bodies. Researchers suspect that they promote the production of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. A balanced meal actually has a ratio of 40 to 50 percent carbohydrates, 25 to 35 percent protein, and 20 to 30 percent fat.  Carbohydrates can come from vitamin-packed sources like vegetables or from foods with empty calories like cookies, cakes, crackers and breads. According to new research in the Journal of Nutrition, swapping refined grains for whole grains may help reduce total body fat and belly fat.  But let's focus on an insidious villain of good health that wrecks havoc on good intentioned vegetarians.
Getting Hit Below The Waist
We are all aware that artery-clogging cholesterol from fats and processed meats is bad for our health. If you're a vegetarian like me, perhaps that's part of the reason you stopped eating meat. But here's another scientific watchword: high triglycerides. In humans, triglycerides form the mechanism for storing unused calories. Their high concentration in blood correlates with the consumption of starchy and other high-carbohydrate foods. The fat that develops and is stored in our hips or belly largely results from triglycerides — one of three primary cholesterol measurements. [3,4] So that carbohydrate-rich bread basket we ask to be refilled at the restaurant, the junk-food snacks we lost the bet on eating just one, the choice of deep-dish verses thin-crust pizza or that strawberry cheesecake dessert after an otherwise healthy meal can make Vegetarian Man just as vulnerable to health problems as Carnivore Man.
But triglycerides are not necessarily the kryptonite of vegetarians. Like its cousin carbohydrate, triglycerides are necessary. Triglycerides help moisturize our skin, for example. Normal triglycerides should measure less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). A "high triglyceride" level (200+ mg/dL) is the villain. Elevated triglycerides may lead to heart disease, especially in people with low levels of "good" cholesterol and high levels of "bad" cholesterol, and in people with type 2 diabetes.
My doctor was telling me that I had to modify my diet…
I returned to vegetarianism after a seven-year hiatus, which is another story. Within a year back in the fold, I gained 10 pounds and my triglycerides increased by 100 mg. My doctor was telling me that I had to modify my diet; consider Mediterranean cooking, limit egg consumption, eat fish… "Wait," the Vegetarian Man voice said inside of my head, "You mean I'm not healthy? As restricted as my diet already is?" For me, the office visit was a wake-up call. I was getting careless with carbohydrate intake. Fortunately, just minor modifications were needed.
- Eating fortified oat cereal each morning.
- Loaves of bread are replaced with wraps and tortillas.
- Alternate grilled with roasted vegetables.
- Stock up on fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables as healthy snack foods.
- Eat with the goal of being satisfied, not full.
- Drink more water daily.
A healthy diet and exercise plan can lower triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease.  So cut back on the amount of fatty foods. Don't consume more daily calories than you can effectively burn. Include more items from the "Superhero Foods" list and take a vitamin B12 supplement. To monitor your triglycerides, get an lipid panel test during your annual medical examination.
|"Superhero Foods" For Vegetarians and Vegans |
|Food Source||Vitamins And Minerals|
|Spinach||Fiber and most of the vitamins and minerals commonly found in meat products; including calcium, iron, zinc, and folic acid|
|Lentils||Contain protein, fiber and complex carbohydrate, iron, some B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and zinc|
|Soya Beans||Protein, some B vitamins, polyunsaturated fat, iron and fiber|
|Tofu and Tempeh||Protein, iron, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus|
|Quinoa||Carbohydrates, protein, fiber, various forms of Vitamin B, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, copper and manganese|
|Rolled Oats||Good source of protein, thiamin, niacin, iron, fiber and carbohydrates|
|Wheat Bran||Excellent source of soluble fiber, iron and carbohydrates|
|Wheat Germ||Vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, thiamin, phosphorus, and zinc|
|Dried Apricots||Beta-carotene, calcium, fiber and vitamin C|
|Almonds||Monounsaturated oil, protein, calcium, iron, fiber and vitamin E|
|Seeds||Sesame and Sunflower Seeds: protein, rich in calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin E, magnesium and phosphate|
Abnormally strong cravings for carbs, particularly during the winter, may be symptomatic of seasonal affective disorder.  If this is suspected, professional counseling or medical intervention may need to augment will power.
A Balancing Act
High triglycerides fed primarily by carbohydrate-packed breads and snack foods must be controlled. If, like me, you have a weakness for Cheez-Its® and Gold Fish®, you may need to keep them out of the shopping cart. But Vegetarian Man doesn't have to be fanatical. Don't abandon carbohydrates altogether; they are metabolically necessary.
I still go to restaurants and enjoy an occasional vegetarian pizza or blueberry muffin. The key is moderation. Earlier this year I tipped the scales at my highest weight ever. When I reached for a suit, the jackets would point at one another and scream, "Pick gray." "No, pick blue!" By applying the six suggestions in this article and including more healthy food choices , I have lost 20 pounds in 6 months and can once again fit into the superhero costumes hanging in my closet. Now I am beating back the villainous foe, High Triglyceride. Hopefully, you too will be A Bit More Healthy.
- Caloric Ratio Pyramid. nutritiondata.self.com
- 6 Convincing Reasons to Keep Carbs in Your Diet. onemedical.com
- Triglyceride. en.wikipedia.org
- Triglycerides and How to Lower Them. webmd.com
- The 10 Superheroes of a Vegetarian Diet. mindyourselfchicago.com
- Craving Carbs in Winter: Is It Depression? webmd.com
- Image by Henrik Jonsson licensed from iStock Photo.