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March 2002
Transitioning to a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet

By Jacinta “Jazz” Fenton


Becoming a true vegetarian/vegan means shifting your thoughts as well as your old habits. Over the years your body has developed an addiction to certain foods because of the way they were produced. When you realize that, then you begin to understand your addictions and that you are in control of your body by what you choose to feed it. By reminding yourself that you have a choice each time you are at a critical impasse, you can, over time, condition yourself to make healthy choices.

The transition to a vegetarian/vegan life can be a challenging one, especially because there are many myths surrounding it. There may be questions concerning the values of foods and how to effectively replace necessary nutrients. What do I eat? When do I eat? If I decide not to eat carbohydrates will I get enough calories? Without meat am I getting the required amount of protein? Some of the mythology can easily be dispelled by asking questions of authorized sources and putting time and effort into your own active research. With today’s technology, information is widely accessible. It is up to you to be proactive. Speak to your holistic health counselor, your doctor (if s/he is knowledgeable about vegetarian nutrition), search the Internet, and by all means expand your circle to include other practicing vegetarians/vegans.

The most frequently asked question by new vegetarians/vegans is how to get protein if they are not partaking of flesh foods. The most effective means by which they obtain protein is by eating enough greens, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts. Examples of legumes are soybeans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, and peanuts. Vegetables that are a good source of protein include sea vegetables (like nori) and sprouted seeds/grains/legumes. It is well documented that in cultures where they eat soy protein in place of animal protein, the people live healthier and longer lives. One can ensure an intake of ‘complete’ protein (i.e. all the essential amino acids) by eating a balanced diet; it is not necessary to combine specific foods at each meal, but one should vary their diet throughout the day.

Beans, a highly nutritious food source, are often avoided because of their reputation for causing intestinal gas. To help avoid this, I advise clients to soak their beans for a number of hours, drain and rinse them, then cook in fresh water and discard the cooking water. Beans are more easily digested when they are cooked twice, hence ‘refried’ beans.

Carbohydrates are necessary for the production of energy, because after digestion they are broken down into simple sugars which the cells use as a kind of fuel. It is unfortunate, however, that so many vegetarians consume an abundance of carbohydrates in the form of cakes, pasta and other simple sugars which contribute to bone degeneration, tooth decay, and could also lead to diabetes. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates such whole grains, beans, vegetables and the tubular vegetables grown in warm climates (like cassava, sweet potato, dasheen and green bananas or plantains) are a more efficient form of energy.

The most abundant mineral in the body is calcium which is found in the bones and blood. Americans are bombarded with commercials to drink milk and eat cheese etc, in order to obtain maximum calcium; however, Americans have one of the highest rates of bone degeneration in the world. Also remember that dairy products are a leading cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Some non-animal sources of calcium are broccoli, green leafy vegetables, (like beet greens, collard greens, kale and watercress), beans, peas, tempeh and some brands of tofu. It is also found in some sea vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts.

Our bodies make digestive enzymes, but uncooked foods contain their own live enzymes which aid in their digestion. Consuming foods like sprouts, wheatgrass, spirulina, sea vegetables and raw greens is beneficial. Fermented foods like kraut and pickles are an especially rich source of natural enzymes.

Vitamins and minerals help to regulate the body’s metabolic processes and are essential for growth, reproduction, and overall maintenance of health. One pitfall when transforming to vegetarianism or veganism is the over-reliance on mega doses of nutrients that people take in order to compensate for what they feel their new diet lacks. Most processed vitamins and minerals are made with artificial fillers, binders, lubricants, colors, flavors and coatings. Organic local wholefoods are complete in their nutritional value. Vitamins are synthesized by plants and incorporated into their structure, so when we eat fruits and vegetables we are obtaining those vitamins. Especially rich sources include green leafy vegetables, peppers, carrots, papayas, melons, wheat germ, soybeans, beans, nuts and seeds. It should be mentioned that iron, often of concern to vegetarians, is found in many vegetables including whole grains. Furthermore, the vitamin C found in fruit and vegetables aids the absorption of iron.

It is important to begin and continue the vegetarian or vegan journey by questioning and researching. Get to know the sources of your information. Read every label of every product whether it is purchased in a healthfood store or elsewhere. Your meals should be healthy, nutritious and fun. Break the old habits of eating. Mix, blend and combine those foods you love. Enjoy yourself as you discover new foods while nourishing your body with joy.

Jacinta “Jazz” Fenton is a holistic health counselor who trained at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. For appointments, call (212) 722-8458.


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