Vegetarian meals and plant-based diets have been gaining in popularity for several years. According to a recent poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group3, forty-seven percent of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal per week. This is up by 15 percent according to a comparison of data ten years ago. 1 A vegetarian eating pattern can be a healthy option for most people. The key is to consume a variety of foods and right amount of foods to meet your nutrient needs.2 If appropriately planned, vegetarian or vegan diets can help in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes. 6, 4 Vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Their diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, and folate.6
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has affirmed that a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs and have health advantages. However, some vegetarians may have lower intakes of some nutrients due to the lack of dairy and meat products consumed and possibly lack of proper planning. They may have lower intakes of protein, vitamin B-12, calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.6 A vegetarian diet should be nutritionally sound and planned carefully to include essential nutrients. It is suggested to don’t jump into vegetarianism overnight. It should take some proper planning and it can be as hard or as easy as you choose to make it.
Nutrition Considerations for a Sound Vegetarian Diet 4
Protein: Consume a variety of plant proteins over a course of a day to provide all the essential amino acids. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, rice, beans, legumes, nuts, and soy products added in each meal is ideal to meet the required RDA of protein.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Diets that do not include fish or eggs tend to be lower in Omega-3 Fatty Acids. It is suggested to make sure to include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy in the diet to get the recommended amounts of Omega-3 Fatty Acids each day.
Iron: Iron-deficiency anemia among vegetarians is common. Good sources of iron include dried beans, tofu, spinach, chard, potatoes, cashews, bulgur, and iron-fortified foods such as cereal and instant oatmeal. To increase the amount of iron absorbed per meal, increase your vitamin C.
Calcium: Vegans have a 30% higher risk of fractures due to lower calcium intake. Include calcium fortified foods such as fruit juices, soy milk and rice milk, cereals, and include broccoli, collard greens, kale and mustard greens as well.
Vitamin B₁₂: B₁₂ must be obtained from fortified foods such as soy and rice beverages and cereals. However, it is recommended to take a B₁₂ supplement. There is no unfortified plant food that contains enough vitamin B₁₂.
Zinc: It is recommended to add in zinc sources such as soy products, legumes, grains, nuts, and pumpkin seeds. Zinc is necessary for the biochemical reactions and helps the immune system function properly.
It is important to choose a variety of foods. Using the MyPlate Tips for Vegetarians can help you make sure you are meeting your nutritional needs each day. 7
Tips for Healthy Eating for Vegetarians
ChooseMyPlate.gov has provided ten tips for healthy eating for vegetarians2:
- Think About Protein: Protein needs can be met with including beans, peas, nuts and soy products.
- Bone Up on Sources of Calcium: Plant based sources of calcium can include calcium-fortified soymilk, calcium- fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, dark-leafy vegetables such as collard, turnip, mustard greens and bok choy.
- Make Simple Changes: Many popular main dishes can be vegetarian such as pasta primavera, pasta with marinara or pesto, veggie pizza, vegetable lasagna, vegetable stir-fry with tofu and bean burritos.
- Enjoy a Cookout: For barbecues, try veggie or soy burgers, fruit and veggie kabobs.
- Include Beans and Peas: Consuming beans and peas is recommended for everyone due to their high nutrient content.
- Try Different Veggie Versions: Try a variety of vegetarian products that may look like their non-vegetarian counterparts. They are usually lower in fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
- Make Some Small Changes at Restaurants: Ask your server for a vegetarian alternative and substitutions for meat sauces.
- Nuts Make Great Snacks: Add almonds, walnuts or pecans to your salads and dishes.
- Get Your Vitamin B₁₂: Since most vitamin B₁₁ is found only in animal products, vegetarians should choose fortified foods or a supplement. Check your nutrition facts label.
- Find a Vegetarian Pattern for You: Go to dietaryguidelines.gov and check appendices 8 and 9 for vegetarian adaptations.
Enjoy planning and preparing elaborate meals or just simple dishes. Here is an example of a simple vegetarian dish:
Roasted Sweet Potato Salad with Spinach and Grapes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
- 3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
- ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- 2 cups red grapes, halved
- 1 large ripe but firm avocado, diced
- 5 ounces baby spinach, chopped
- 2 tablespoons soy yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon sriracha, optional
- pinch cayenne, optional
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Spread the chopped sweet potato over one or two baking sheets and drizzle with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Roast for 40 to 50 minutes or until golden-brown and cooked through, turning once half-way through baking.
- Remove sweet potatoes from oven, and allow them to cool to room temperature.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the soy yogurt, lime juice, sriracha, cayenne, and salt.
- Add the roasted sweet potato, red onion, dried cranberries, grapes, avocado, and spinach to a large serving bowl. Pour the yogurt dressing over everything and toss well to combine. Serve alongside your favorite entree.
Written by Idaho State University Dietetic Student
Caspero, A. (2014, January 28). Building a Healthy Vegetarian Meal: Myths and Facts. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets/building-a-healthy-vegetarian-meal-myths-and-facts
Ten Tips for Vegetarians [Pamphlet]. (n.d.). Choose My Plate. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips
Vegetarianism in a Nutshell. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/nutshell.htm
Vegetarian Diets. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Vegetarian-Diets_UCM_306032_Article.jsp#.VtkJOECRbVY
Roasted Sweet Potato Salad with Spinach and Grapes. (2015). Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.theroastedroot.net/?s=sweet+potato+salad+with+spinach+and+grapes
“Vegetarian Diets Can Help Prevent Chronic Diseases, American Dietetic Association Says.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 July 2009. Web. 06 Mar. 2016. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090701103002.htm
“Tips for Vegetarians.” Choose MyPlate. N.p., 22 June 2015. Web. 06 Mar. 2016. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/tips-vegetarians