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Five rules for active vegetarians

By Nikki McDonald

Giving up meat definitely has its health benefits. Besides limiting your exposure to the latest brain-eating beef-borne disease or avian bird plague, you're also helping to ward off much more likely threats that include cancer and diabetes. Still, there are health risks that come with cutting meat from your diet, especially if you're actively exercising.

"Eating a vegetarian diet can be healthful, but without the proper guidance you run the risk of depleting your body of much-needed nutrients," says Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietician and nutritionist located in San Francisco, who frequently works with athletes to help ensure they're getting all the nutrients they need to meet their fitness goals. His biggest piece of advice: be a responsible vegetarian. Villacorta gave us these five must-follow tips to help you pull that off:

1. Use an iron skillet
If you're a vegetarian, it's likely that either you're not getting enough of certain macro and micronutrients to keep your body running efficiently or your body is not absorbing them as efficiently as it would if these little lifesavers were coming from meat. The nutrients to watch for include protein, zinc, calcium, vitamins B12 and D, and iron.

Your body needs iron to keep your energy up and supply oxygen to the muscles, but iron is notoriously difficult for your body to absorb, even when it's coming from meat. Although good vegetarian sources of iron include beans, spinach, whole grains, and cereals fortified with iron, your best bet is to toss the Teflon and cook your food in an iron skillet. Iron from the skillet comes off on your food as you cook it, acting as a natural supplement. (Taking iron supplements is not recommended—see tip #4.)

Vitamin C also helps your body absorb iron. While you're cooking up your beans or tofu in your iron skillet, throw in a few tomatoes or squeeze in a little lime juice to see maximum benefits, suggests Villacorta.

2. Mix and match your amino acids
When it comes to your body the amino acids it needs to synthesize proteins, eating a piece of meat is like dining at a one-stop shop. A piece of meat contains all of the nine essential amino acids your body needs to keep its systems running smoothly. (Actually, it needs 20, but your body produces 11 amino acids on its own, relying on your diet to provide the remaining nine.) No plant-based food, aside from the soybean, contains all nine amino acids, which means vegetarians need to mix and match their food carefully to ensure they're getting all the amino acids they need to keep their immune systems humming and muscles functioning at top capacity.

Rice, for example, lacks lysine, one of the nine essential amino acids, says Villacorta. To get a complete set of amino acids, you'd need to supplement your rice with beans, which lack a different amino acid, methionine. When you eat a dish of rice and beans, the rice provides the beans' missing methionine and the beans give your body the lysine it's craving.

In the past, the nutritionist community believed that you had to eat the right combinations of foods together for your body to get all of its essential amino acids, says Villacorta. New research shows, however, that you don't need to eat the exact food combinations together at the same meal, you just need to eat them. And you need to eat enough of them, Villacorta adds.

Even soybeans, the only vegetable to contain all of the nine essential amino acids, aren't as absorbable as meat. "Just eating soybeans one day a week isn't going to cut it," says Villacorta. "You need to be eating some kind of plant protein every day."

3. Look for fortified foods
It can be tough to get all the nutrients you need from plant-based foods, which the body has a hard time absorbing. As a result, vegetarians need to eat more of the missing nutrients to make up for the shortfall. One way to avoid eating three plates of rice and beans at every meal is to look for foods that come fortified with the nutrients you need.

For example, says Villacorta, vegans—or those who are lactose-intolerant—can bone up on much-needed calcium by drinking orange juice fortified with calcium in addition to eating such standards as bok choy, green cabbage, kale, soybeans, almonds, and broccoli. Many breads and cereals also come fortified with zinc and other nutrients of which vegetarians are typically in short supply.

4. Know when to supplement
You can have too much of a good thing, says Villacorta, especially when it comes to certain nutrients. Iron supplements, for example, contain highly concentrated doses that could cause, ahem, intestinal distress—especially for men, who tend not to excrete unused iron as women do.

Zinc, however, is safe to consume as a supplement; it's simply too hard to get too much zinc, says Villacorta. Your body, which uses zinc to rid itself of carbon dioxide, has a tough time absorbing zinc that comes from plants. Although good sources of zinc include beans, tofu, and fortified breads and cereals, a zinc supplement won't put you over the edge of what's safe.

So how do you know what's safe and what's not? You don't. Villacorta recommends consulting a doctor or nutritionist before taking any supplement or stick to getting your vitamins the natural way—from food.

5. Note to self: a potato chip is not a vegetable.
The biggest part of being a responsible vegetarian is not just being selective about the foods you don't eat, but being careful about the foods you do eat. Just because chips, cookies, and cocktails don't contain meat, doesn't mean you can—or should—allow them into your diet. Active vegetarians need to eat responsibly, stresses Villacorta, by choosing foods they know will supply the nutrients they no longer get from meat. In other words, goodbye Pringles, hello sweet potatoes.

Nikki McDonald is a freelance writer and editor based in Minnesota. She has previously worked as the editor in chief of Digital Photography magazine and executive editor of MacAddict magazine, among others.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian/nutritionist located in San Francisco, California, providing nutrition counseling in weight management and various nutrition-related topics. He can be found on the web at http://www.mvnutrition.com.