The ground rules for eating a healthful vegetarian diet just became easier to understand.
The American Dietetic Association has produced a 100-page mini-book, "Being Vegetarian," as part of its Nutrition Now series, published by Chronimed. Anyone interested in the basics of vegetarian nutrition can get an information-dense short course that's a quick and easy read.
Often, the parents of teen-agers turning vegetarian have valid concerns about how their kids' food choices will affect their growth, health, sports performance and, later, ability to have children of their own. Likewise, pregnant women and mothers of young kids worry about meeting growth and development needs.
Much of the concern, especially about meeting protein needs, arose in the early '70s with the publication of "Diet for a Small Planet." Frances Moore Lappe's multimillion-copy best seller explored protein complementarity in excruciating detail. Unfortunately, she made it sound so hard to build a vegetarian diet that she scared a lot of people away. The protein basics are really quite simple.
Protein is made up of 20 building blocks called amino acids. Your body can make all but eight of them. Those eight are called "essential" because you must get them from food. If any one is missing or in short supply, it limits your ability to build muscle, replace worn out cells or keep your immune system highly tuned.
All animal proteins, including meat, dairy foods and eggs, provide all the essential amino acids, so each one is complete. A person who eats any animal foods at all is likely to meet protein needs.
Plant foods provide all the essential amino acids, too. But they have to work together to do it. When it comes to beans, peas, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds, each food is limited in at least one amino acid. So, standing alone, any one plant food is incomplete. But together, the amino acids in plant foods fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces and provide a complete array.
The misinformation conveyed by Lappe was that all the plant proteins had to match up, and complete each other, in each and every meal. Not so. It turns out that your amino acid pool is good for about 24 hours. If you eat a variety of plant foods over the course of a day, you'll easily build all the protein you need.
But variety is key here. Just eating vegetables won't do it. Vegetables need assistance, especially from beans, peas and lentils, but also from grains, nuts and seeds. Fruit is no help, since it is essentially amino-acid free. (Fruit is nutritionally important for other reasons. It just doesn't provide any protein.)
I get concerned when I counsel women who have dropped meat, chicken, fish and dairy foods from their diets so they can cut calories and fat, then fill in with fat-free cookies, chips and cheese curls. Although those products do include flour, a plant food, they don't provide as much protein as beans. One ounce of corn chips, for instance, has about three grams of protein. One-half cup of beans has about nine grams. That's a big difference in a diet that contains no animal protein.
To get the idea of a balanced day on a strictly vegan, 1,800-calorie diet, here's one day from the menu list in "Being Vegetarian."
Breakfast: One ounce bran flakes with one cup soy milk, 1/2 cup sliced strawberries, one English muffin with jelly, 1/2 cup orange-pineapple juice.
Lunch: Spinach salad with 2 teaspoons vinaigrette dressing, small cheeseless pizza with vegetable toppings, one large apple, water with lemon.
Dinner: One cup black bean soup with chopped onions, 1 1/2 cups vegetable paella, cucumber and tomato salad, whole grain roll, slice of watermelon, water with lemon.
Snack: Two oatmeal cookies, one cup soy milk.
If you're interested in developing a healthful vegetarian diet, try this reliable little book ($5.95) for the basics. It includes shopping lists, tips on buying and preparing vegetables, notes on working with recipes and hints on eating out. There's also a resource list and a week's worth of menus.
Issues of special interest to vegetarians, like how to get enough protein, vitamins and minerals, through all stages of the life cycle are summarized clearly and concisely.
If you're going vegetarian, do it right the first time.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 8/20/96