The vegetarian diet is a healthy lifestyle followed by more than 4 million Americans. Compared to the general population, the typical vegetarian has a lower body mass index (BMI), lower cholesterol, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduced risk of coronary artery disease. Sound promising? Let WebMD point you toward some of the most nutritious and satisfying vegetarian foods.
Vegetarian Diet: Getting Started
There are many types of vegetarian diets. By definition, vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. Some vegetarians eat eggs and milk products. Others eat dairy, but skip the eggs. Finally, vegans eat only plant foods. They do not eat anything derived from animals, including milk, eggs, and honey. Whichever path you choose, you’ll want to make protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12 a priority.
Pick Your Proteins
Meat protein contains all the essential amino acids the body needs, but vegetarian sources often don’t. To get the full range of proteins, vegetarians must eat a wide variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. For example, beans are high in an amino acid called lysine, but low in sulfur-rich amino acids. The opposite is true of grains. So eating a meal of black beans and rice is one way to get a balanced set of proteins.
Substitute With Soy
Soy products are a versatile source of protein. They work well as a meat substitute. Try making tofu kebabs the next time your meat-eating friends fire up the grill. Even if tofu leaves you cold, there are plenty of other soy foods on the market today. Soy is the prime ingredient in most meatless hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and breakfast sausages
Tweak Your Favorite Recipes
One of the easiest ways to transition to a vegetarian diet is to create meatless versions of your favorite recipes. For example, make vegetarian lasagna with spinach and/or tofu instead of ground beef. Keep clicking for more meatless
Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers
Stuff bell peppers with a blend of rice and veggies. Instead of ground beef, add beans or meatless sausage crumbles. Season as usual.
Eggs in a vegetarian diet provide a reliable and convenient source of protein. It’s easy to whip up a veggie omelet instead of the standard ham-and-cheese. Try carrots, mushrooms and spinach for a colorful and nutritious alternative.
Here’s a tasty replacement for chicken parmesan – where your recipe calls for chicken, use thin slices of eggplant instead. If you decide to exclude dairy, you can use a soy-based cheese substitute instead of real parmesan.
When you’re craving a warm, spicy bowl of chili, simply replace the ground beef with ground tofu. With ample seasoning, you may not even notice the difference.
It’s not quite a cheeseburger in paradise, but a grilled portabella mushroom on a whole-wheat bun comes close. Top with lettuce, tomato or cheese, just as you would a hamburger.
If you’re looking for something closer to the texture of a real hamburger, try a veggie burger. Most supermarkets now have several brands of frozen veggie burgers to choose from. These are often made with a blend of vegetables, soy, and grains, providing a well-balanced source of protein.
Vegetarian Diet Perks
Vegetarians tend to be slimmer and enjoy a reduced risk of developing certain diseases. One reason: a vegetarian diet boosts your intake of phytochemicals. These are compounds found in colorful fruits and vegetables, such as the lutein in broccoli and the lycopene in tomatoes. Phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants and may help protect against cancer.
Vegetarian Diet Drawbacks
Without a well-rounded diet, vegetarians may become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, such as iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. Vegans are especially at risk. Keep reading to learn which nutrients may be lacking in a vegetarian diet and how to compensate.
Calcium & Vitamin D
If you eat milk, cheese, or yogurt, you probably get enough calcium to keep your bones strong. But if you go the vegan route, you’ll need alternate sources of calcium. These include fortified soy milk and orange juice, seeds, nuts, and some green vegetables. People who avoid dairy products also miss out on vitamin D. The body can make this vitamin in response to sunlight, but vegans who don’t get enough sun exposure may need a supplement.
Although zinc is found in many vegetarian foods, it is not as well absorbed as meat-based zinc. Eating plenty of zinc-rich foods can help you maximize the amount your body absorbs. Good sources include milk, cheese, whole-grain breads, nuts, soy foods, and legumes, such as chickpeas. Hummus on a whole-grain pita is one tasty snack that does the trick.
Red meat may be the most obvious source of iron, but this vital mineral is plentiful in leafy green vegetables, cooked dry beans, and fortified cereals or grains. Like zinc, plant-based iron is not as well absorbed as iron from meat. The solution is to eat iron-rich foods regularly and in combination with foods that contain vitamin C. Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are good fats that lower blood pressure and contribute to heart health. They are found mainly in fatty fish, as well as eggs. If you don't eat either of these foods, you need to include other sources of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and soybean oil are all good options.
Low levels of vitamin B-12 can cause muscle weakness and fatigue. This vitamin is found only in foods derived from animals, including meats, eggs, and milk products. So vegans either need to eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12 or take supplements.
Some parents wonder whether a vegetarian diet is safe for their kids or teenagers. Experts say it is not only safe, but probably beneficial. In a study of 5,000 children, researchers concluded that the typical vegetarian diet is significantly healthier than the typical non-vegetarian diet. Just be sure kids get enough fats to meet their needs – nuts, peanut butter, avocado, milk products, and eggs are all good sources.
You don’t need to be a vegetarian seven days a week to reap some of the benefits. Going meatless one or two days a week can reduce your intake of saturated fats and cholesterol, while giving your body plenty of beneficial plant-based nutrients. Eating satisfying, meatless meals is getting easier and more convenient. Many restaurants and supermarkets now offer items specifically for vegetarians.