As with any diet, healthy eating requires food balance, variety, and moderation. A healthy vegetarian diet requires a balance between all the essential nutrients needed in order to maintain physical health. Vegetarians face potential risks that are unique to a plant-based food diet including certain deficiencies in nutrition such as iron, calcium, vitamin B-12, and essential protein amino acids.
The more restrictive a diet is, the more difficult it becomes to obtain certain nutrients. However, a complete and healthy vegetarian diet can provide you with all the health benefits of vegetarianism through well-balanced vegetarian meals. Whether you're interested in converting to a vegetarian diet, are already a vegetarian, or are curious about the potential health benefits of vegetarianism, here are some general tips to consider when ensuring that you receive healthy nutrition through vegetarian food.
Vegetarian Alternatives: Nutrition Basics
Whether you're a vegan, semi-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian or a meat-eater, you require certain essential nutrients in a diet. However, vegetarians, and particularly vegans, are at an increased risk of protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, iron, and zinc deficiencies. Here are some vegetarian sources and healthy alternatives that can provide you with these food essentials:
- Protein can be found in eggs and dairy products for some vegetarians but can also be found in soy products, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Protein is vital to maintaining healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs.
- Calcium helps build and maintain healthy teeth and bones. The best vegetarian sources for calcium are low-fat milk products, dark green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and fortified calcium products such as tofu, soymilk, and fruit juice.
- Vitamin B-12. Vegans are at particular risk for developing a vitamin B-12 deficiency since this vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products such as milk, eggs, and cheese. Vitamin B-12 is essential to producing red blood cells to preventing anemia. For vegans and other vegetarians, vitamin B-12 can be found in certain specially fortified soy products, cereals, and in supplement form.
- Iron and Zinc. Iron is also integral to red blood cell production and can be found in dried beans, peas, lentils, cereals, whole grains, dried fruit and dark, leafy vegetables. Zinc can be found in whole grains, soy products, nuts, and wheat germ and is essential to protein formation and the division of cells.
It is additionally recommended that food rich in vitamin C including fruit and vegetables such as strawberries, citrus, tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage be eaten at the same time as iron-containing foods to help the body absorb vegetarian sources of iron.
The Protein Risk of Vegetarianism
Many individuals are concerned about receiving adequate protein quality containing complete sources of essential amino acids. This is because many vegetarian sources of protein do not contain combinations of amino acids that are found in complete forms in animal products. However, by combining different foods containing limited amino acids, a complete and healthy vegetarian meal can provide you with an ideal protein intake. Consider the following vegetarian combinations:
- Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils contain the limited tryptophan and methionine amino acids. A combination of legumes with grains, nuts, and seeds can provide a complete protein balance. Consider a meal that includes combinations such as lentil soup and cornbread.
- Grains such as rice, wheat, oats, barley, corn and rye contain lysine, isoleucine, threoninethe amino acids which can be combine with legumes and dairy products for a complete protein intake. Consider a vegetarian meal that combines kidney beans and rice or grain cereals with milk.
- Nuts and Seeds including almonds cashews filberts, walnuts, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds contain lysine and isoleucine amino acids which are best combined with legumes and dairy. Examples of these meals include kidney bean soup with sesame seeds.
General Tips for Vegetarians
If you're looking to make the switch to a vegetarian diet that reduces the amount of animal product intake, you may want to begin by thinking of meat substitutions you can use in meals you regularly prepare. For instance, a vegetarian chili could easily be made by substituting ground beef with kidney beans or black beans. Many meat alternatives such as tofu can be used in stir-fry dishes or other dishes where you would otherwise use meat.
Milk alternatives such as rice milk, almond milk, and soy milk are also available, while olive and other vegetable oils can be used as a healthy butter substitute for baking as well as sautéing food. You may find that many of your dishes are already meat-free such as pasta dishes, while other meals, such as those containing grain-rich tortilla shells, may not even require animal products in order to meet complete protein requirements.
There is a wealth of options when it comes to exploring new vegetarian meals. The key to a successful diet is variety. Try new vegetable combinations and vegetarian recipes such as fettuccine with Swiss chard and mushroom, grilled Portobello burgers, and combination soups such as orange-butternut squash or four-grain tomato soup.