Last night culinary class focused on vegetarian menus. This was by far my favorite class. I have considered myself a vegetarian on and off for the last 19 years. I just prefer to not eat meat. I am not strict by any means. Even in my proclaimed vegetarian days I was a lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian. HUH? That means I ate dairy, eggs and sometimes fish. I would still categorized myself their now. I have tried the vegan thing, but it is way too restrictive for me.
People choose vegetarian or vegan diets for a number of reasons; religious, dietary/health concerns, animal welfare, or taste preference. For whatever reasons, there are some things one needs to consider on this diet.
A Science Lesson
(1) A vegetarian does not live on salad alone
Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life.
When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. The human body needs a number of amino acids to:
- Break down food
- Repair body tissue
- Perform many other body functions
Amino acids are classified into three groups:
- Essential amino acids
- Nonessential amino acids
- Conditional amino acids
Essential amino acids
- Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body. As a result, they must come from food.
- The nine essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Nonessential amino acids
- “Nonessential” means that our bodies produce an amino acid, even if we don’t get it from the food we eat.
- They include: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid.
Conditional amino acids
- Conditional amino acids are usually not essential, except in times of illness and stress.
- They include: arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
We can produce 11 of the 20 amino acids. The others must be supplied in the food. Failure to obtain enough of even 1 of the 9 essential amino acids, those that we cannot make, results in degradation of the body’s proteins (muscles) to obtain the one amino acid that is needed. Unlike fat and starch, the human body does not store excess amino acids for later use—the amino acids must be in the food every day. The 10 amino acids that we can produce are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine.
Any food that contains all 9 is called a complete protein (meat, milk and eggs are complete proteins). Most plant food is incomplete (legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds). This means one or more essential amino acids is missing or not present in a high enough concentration. The exception is soybean, quinoa (keen-wa), and amaranth.
In a vegetarian diet it is important to pair foods for complete proteins such as; beans and grains, beans, seeds and nuts, grains and a dairy product.
(2) Popping pills
In addition to protein, vegetarians need nutrients normally found in meat but not in plants, to supplement. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Vitamin D is usually fortified in milk and obtained through sun exposure. Calcium also in dairy products but green leafy vegetables too. Most vegetarians are probably not eating enough green leafy veggies to get an adequate amount so supplements are strongly encouraged.
Diet is all about balance, whatever you chose to eat.