Vegetarians Rebuild the Pyramid
Date: Friday, January 20 @ 03:27:23 EST
…with some help of the dietitians, naturally.
Did you know there is a vegetarian/vegan food pyramid?
After 15 years of being bombarded with “Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating” there is an alternative for vegetarians and vegans who avoid the “dairy” and most of the “meat and alternatives” categories. Luckily, the new food pyramid - unlike so many vegetarian restaurant dishes - these crucial categories aren’t just left out.
Back in 2003, an article entitled “A New Food Guide For North American Vegetarians” was published. It was designed as a companion to “Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets”, published earlier. (FYI, the position was in favour of well-planned vegetarian diets, of course! See link below.) Anyway, I personally do not remember any hype surrounding the release of this paper. I have heard that Canada’s Food Guide is second only to the income tax Guide in distribution…one would think any variations on this would make waves.
Regardless, if you’ve ever seen a non-vegetarian food pyramid, you know they are totally useless for those of us who abstain from meat and/or animal products. Do beans count as a protein or a vegetable? What about soy milk? Does it count at all? Is tofu a calcium source like dairy, or a protein like chicken?
Here is a brief summary of the new guide, with a little commentary from me. I suppose it’s worth mentioning I have no association with the Dietitians of Canada or with this article and the opinions below are mine. The guide is published as a public policy statement which can be found here: http://www.dietitians.ca/news/downloads/Vegetarian_Food_Guide_for_NA.pdf
A Brief Summary in Comparison to the Traditional, Non-vegetarian Food Guide:
- Grains: Old guide - 5-12 servings
New guide - 6 servings, where 1 serving = 1/2 cup cooked or 1 slice bread
- Legumes, nuts protein-rich foods
Old Guide: 2-3 servings meat and alternatives
Vegetarian Guide: 5 servings(1/2 cup tofu/beans, ¼ cup nuts, 2 tbsp. nut butter)
- Calcium-rich foods
Old Guide: 2-4 servings dairy per day ( 1 serving = 1 cup or ~300mg calcium)
Vegetarian Guide: 10, 100mg calcium servings of dairy or alternatives
100 mg of calcium is found in 1/2 cup milk or soy milk, 5 figs, 1 serving tofu.
Calcium-set tofu, tempeh, almonds, soynuts count as both protein and calcium.
Old Guide: 5-10 fruit and vegetable per day
Vegetarian Guide: 4 (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked)
Bok choy, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, collards, okra also count as calcium-rich
Old Guide: 5-10 fruits and vegetables per day
Vegetarian Guide: 2 (1 medium, ½ cup cut, or ¼ cup dried)
More vegetables than fruits due to higher phytochemical density in veggies
Old Guide: limit
Vegetarian Guide: 2 (1 tsp. each) Aim for omega-3-rich sources
The authors point out several areas of concern in meatless diets:
• Omega-3 (aka n-3) fats
• Vitamin D
• Vitamin B-12
• Avoid sweets and alcohol
It is wonderful to see there is no mention of protein here. The misconception that vegetarians – and especially vegans – must be protein-deficient still runs rampant but perhaps that myth is finally going out of style.
Vegan sources of calcium include broccoli, greens such as kale or collards, fortified soy and plant milks; figs, almonds, and tofu/whole soybeans. Building strong bones depends on many factors like weight-bearing exercise, diet, and genetics, but consuming enough calcium – about 1000 mg per day - can help.
I wish there were a setting for DOUBLE BOLD PRINT because this category is one near and dear to my heart. Omega-3s are highly researched and have recently been shown to not only play essential roles in body functions, but also to protect against chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Unfortunately most research seems to be done with fish oils, which provide a more bio-available (useable) form of omega-3. So what does this mean for vegetarians? It means we must find plant sources of these fats to keep our bodies functioning properly – omega-3s are essential to everything from brain and neuronal development to recovery from exercise.
The Vegetarian food Pyramid recommends at least two servings of omega-3 rich foods per day, but unless you are medications or have healthy issues, I have read and I believe that more is more. The food pyramid servings are meant to be minimums so more may be needed to satisfy caloric needs, don’t be shy. According to the pyramid, 1 serving is equal to 1 tsp. flax oil, 3 tsp. canola or soybean oil, 1 tbsp. ground flaxseed, or ¼ cup walnuts. Walnut oil is also delicious used in salad dressings.
The human body can make its own vitamin D with the help of the sun, and vegetarians are no exception. Fifteen minutes of sunlight on exposed, non-sunscreened skin daily is all it takes. If this is impossible (I’m talking to you, computer nerds!) try fortified milk, non-dairy milk, or breakfast cereals.
This is the only vitamin not naturally occurring in a single vegan food, unless you happen to have some rotting food on your hands. But can’t a vegan diet be complete and cruelty-free? Indeed! Although vitamin B12 is only present in milk, eggs, and meat, fortification options are available. Fortified nutritional yeast (RedStar brand) will do the trick at 1.5 Tbsp. per day. B-12 is also added to many soy milks, cereals, and fake meats.
It seems counter-intuitive that a vegan diet is not nutritionally complete, and this is indeed another myth. We require B12 because we evolved consuming foods rife with bacteria – fresh from the soil, and also consumed un-fresh produce which may have been starting to decompose. B-12 is actually a bacterial by-product, but we are just too darn hygienic these days so it may be difficult to get enough.
Getting enough B-12 is an real concern and I do know individuals with deficiencies. Deficiency can cause severe neurological impairment, which is irreversible, and there are no immediate symptoms. Don’t neglect this one.
Avoid sweets and Alcohol
Both these things can add empty calories to a diet – i.e. they provide little nutritional value for relatively many calories. To consume adequate amounts of the vitamins and minerals vegetarians need, the diet should consist mostly of high-quality whole foods in their natural states. Sugary foods – or anything with added sugar, for that matter – should be an occasional treat. Our bodies have survived for centuries without white sugar, flour, additives, and fast food. We are adapted to consuming fresh, unadulterated nourishment. As for alcohol? Well it’s natural, luckily! Most research points to alcohol (in moderation) being beneficial to health…just don’t go overboard.
Links of Interest
Food Guide for North American Vegetarians:
Position Statement on Vegetarian Diets:
Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating:
My article on Omega-3s as part of a vegetarian diet: