Vegetarian diets are healthy at all stages of the life cycle and confer several important health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer, decreased risk for Type-II diabetes and lower cholesterol (see References 1, page 1266). In order to reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet, include a variety of plant-based foods when planning your meals (see References 1, page 1270).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that vegetarians construct their meals around a low-fat protein source. While dairy and egg products provide protein, they also contain high levels of fat. As a result, relying on them as your primary protein source isn't the healthiest choice. Instead, focus on foods like beans, lentils, rice and soy products like tempeh and tofu. Many high-protein foods, like tempeh and textured vegetable protein, can stand in as meat substitutes, so you can continue to enjoy spaghetti Bolognese or chili con carne without the meat. (See References 2)
Although most people consume enough grains each day, at least half of those should be whole grains (see References 3). Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat breads and pasta, oatmeal, and quinoa, all of which fit well into a vegetarian diet. For example, you could try pasta primavera over whole wheat pasta or a vegetable stir fry over brown rice. Refined grains, while acceptable, eliminate some parts of the grain and contain fewer nutrients. (See References 4)
Veggies and Fruit
Vegetables seem an obvious choice in the vegetarian diet, but variety is essential for good health. The USDA organizes vegetables into five groups: dark green, orange and starchy vegetables, dried beans and peas, and veggies that don't fit in the other four groups. The USDA recommends eating from each of these five groups throughout the week. (See References 5) Vegetables act as the chief source of flavor in many vegetarian meals. Experimenting with a variety of veggies not only has nutritional benefits but keeps your meals tasty and interesting. To add even more variety and flavor, experiment with herbs and seasonings or different methods of cooking. While important for a healthy vegetarian diet, you should plan to eat fewer fruits than veggies. The USDA recommends only 1.5 to 2 cups per day for adults. (See References 6) To meet your requirements, get creative with your fruits. Cut them up in salads, try them as a pizza topping, or toss them with a rice dish or stir fry.
Iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12 are nutrients that vegetarians should focus on, since they don't consume the animal products from which most people obtain these nutrients. If you consume adequate whole grains, proteins and vegetables, you should not need to plan specifically to consume foods rich in these nutrients. For calcium, zinc and B12, dairy products are another excellent source, if your vegetarian diet permits dairy. (See References 2)
- American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; Winston J. Craig, et al.; 2009
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Vegetarian Diets
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: How Many Grain Foods Are Needed Daily?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; What Foods Are in the Grains Group; February 9, 2011
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; How Many Vegetables Are Needed Daily or Weekly?; September 11, 2008
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; How Much Fruit Is Needed Daily?
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