As a “vegan,” I adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet. My friends and even my doctor keep telling me that my eating habits should be more balanced and that I won’t get a sufficient amount of protein from plant food alone. Am I too radical in my approach to healthful eating?
All diets, including strictly vegetarian diets, should strive for balance. There are, of course, variations of vegetarian preferences, such as Semi-vegetarian (includes fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products), Lacto-vegetarian (includes dairy products), Ovo-vegetarian (includes eggs) and Vegan (includes only plant food and omits all animal products). Vegans, such as yourself, may indeed run the risk of some nutritional deficiencies, not only because of the absence of animal protein, but also because of the lack of vitamin B-12 which is only available in animal food products.
When certain foods are excluded, missing key nutrients must be replaced by other sources. For instance, when no meat, fish or poultry is consumed over extended periods of time, Protein, Thiamine, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin B-12 and Folate must be provided by other food items that can substitute these nutrients. Those could be milk, dairy products, eggs, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fortified soy milk. If some of these are excluded from a strictly plant-based vegetarian diet as well, access to “complete” high quality protein can be a challenge. Only animal and soy proteins are considered “complete” – meaning they contain all the essential amino acids (the building blocks which make up protein) the human body requires. Plant foods provide only “incomplete” proteins since they lack one or more essential amino acids.
The good news is that Vegans can make up for missing nutrients by a mix and match approach. For example, grains consumed with legumes (beans, peas) make “complete” proteins. So do other combinations of plant-based foods. Fortunately, complementary proteins don’t have to be consumed all at once and their intake can be distributed over the course of an entire day.