Fact: A vegetarian diet isn’t automatically a healthier option.
The good news is, it can be if you eat right, your way, every day.
The key is to consume a variety of foods and the right amount of foods to meet your calorie and nutrient needs.
What is a healthy vegetarian diet?
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you try to build a healthy vegetarian diet:
Pay attention to protein. Your protein needs can easily be met by eating a variety of plant foods. Sources of protein for vegetarians include beans and peas, nuts, and soy products (such as tofu, tempeh). Lacto-ovo vegetarians also get protein from eggs and dairy foods. And of course grains such as quinoa also offer some protein.
Don’t forget calcium. Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium. Other sources of calcium for vegetarians include calcium-fortified soymilk/ almond milk/ rice milk, tofu made with calcium sulfate, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and orange juice, and some dark-green leafy vegetables (collard, turnip, and mustard greens; and bok choy).
Get your vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. Vegetarians should choose fortified foods such as cereals or soy products, or take a vitamin B12 supplement if they do not consume any animal products. Check the Nutrition Facts label for vitamin B12 in fortified products.
Consume vitamin C at every meal. Vitamin C helps to maximize iron absorption from plants. Think strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, or citrus fruits.
Don’t forget omega-3 fats. Aim for a daily equivalent of 2 tsp of flaxseed oil, 2 tbsp of canola oil or ground flaxseed, or a half cup of walnuts.
Consider other nutrients. There are many nutrients that can be obtained from plant sources but depending on your food choices, you might not get adequate iron, zinc, and vitamin D. The best way to ensure you are getting these nutrients is to eat a variety of foods including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and if desired, dairy products and eggs.
Include legumes. Because of their high nutrient content, consuming beans and peas is recommended for everyone, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Try black beans in a burger, kidney beans in chili, pinto beans in a taco, or chickpeas made into humus.
Experiment with meat substitutes. A variety of vegetarian products look and sometimes taste like their non-vegetarian counterparts but are usually lower in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. Try soy-based sausage patties or links, bean burgers, or falafel.
Careful with cheese. I love the stuff, but most cheese has more saturated fat and calories than many meats. Keep your portions in check.
Go nuts! Choose unsalted nuts as a snack and use them in salads or main dishes. Add almonds, walnuts, or pecans instead of cheese or meat to a green salad. But don’t go overboard – stick to a one ounce portion.
Talk to a Registered Dietitian. Before making any changes to how you eat, it’s a great idea to meet with a Registered Dietitian who can help you make sure there aren’t any holes in your diet.
Do you have other tips to help you eat smart as a vegetarian?