Vegetarian diets can certainly meet all your nutritional needs—the key is to eat a variety of foods so all your nutrient bases are covered. Here we share our healthy eating principles for a well-rounded vegetarian diet.
1| Think about protein
You can easily meet your daily protein needs by eating an array of plant-based foods. Fill out your meals with beans, lentils, nuts, rice, and soy products like tofu and tempeh. Don’t rely on a hefty portion of cheese to fill the protein gap since cheeses often add saturated fat.
2| Consider calcium
The mineral calcium plays a vital role in overall health, including achieving and maintaining healthy teeth and bones. Vegetarians can meet their calcium requirements by including calcium-rich dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt) in meals and snacks. (One 8-ounce glass of milk provides 256 milligrams of calcium, which is about one-fourth of the recommended daily intake of 1,000milligrams per day for adults age 50 and under and 1,200 milligrams for age 51 and older recommended by the Institute of Medicine.)
If you’re lactose intolerant, a vegan, or simply want to incorporate other nondairy sources of calcium into your diet, you have options. Some of those other sources include fortified breakfast cereals, soy products such as tofu made with calcium sulfate and soy milk, soybeans, soynuts, calcium-fortified fruit juices, and some dark-green leafy vegetables including collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, kale, and okra. When you are shopping for tofu, be sure to look carefully at the nutrition label to verify that the tofu you are buying is made with calcium sulfate; nigari (magnesium chloride) is another common coagulating agent used to make tofu, but it has a lower calcium content.
Keep in mind that calcium can be finicky. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the calcium absorption from most foods, including dairy products and grains, is about the same, but calcium can be poorly absorbed from foods high in oxalic acid (found in spinach, sweet potatoes, and beans) or phytic acid (found in unleavened bread, raw beans, seeds, and nuts). These acids bind with the calcium in these foods and prevent its absorption, but they don’t prevent the absorption of calcium from other foods eaten at the same time. It’s best to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods over the course of the day to make sure you are meeting your needs.
3| When it comes to fruits and vegetables, more matters (and color counts)
Whole fruits and vegetables are some of the best foods you can eat. They are low in calories, high in fiber, and brimming with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They play an important role in staving off heart disease and stroke, managing blood pressure and cholesterol, helping prevent certain types of cancer, protecting vision, and maintaining a healthy digestive system.
And color is certainly key—the vitamins and phytochemicals that give plants their brilliant colors work as antioxidants, immune boosters, and anti-inflammatories in humans.
The best way to benefit from these healthy compounds is to eat a variety of fresh produce based on color; you can use the tools at MyPyramid.gov to figure out how many fruits and vegetables you need to eat each day.
4| Eat seasonally
Since fruits and vegetables are an important part of a vegetarian diet, flavor and freshness are vital, and the best way to achieve both is to buy fruits and vegetables in season. This practice offers a variety of benefits.
When you buy fresh produce in season, you don’t have to do much to them to make them taste extraordinary. From the arrival of summer’s squashes, peaches, and tomatoes to the cranberries, oranges, and Brussels sprouts you’ll find in winter, each season offers some-thing unique and delicious to keep your palate happy.
Eating fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness is also a boon to your health as well as your wallet. You’ll benefit from all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants these colorful plants have to offer, and since there’s often an abundance of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season, you’re more apt to find bargains at the grocery store.
5| Go for whole grains
All grains start out as whole grains, which means that they still contain the germ, endosperm, and bran. The bran is full of filling fiber, which keeps you full, while the germ and endosperm contain beneficial antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other healthful compounds. Processing, however, can remove one or more of these components, making refined grains less healthful. Research has shown that eating whole grains helps lower your risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
6| Also remember iron, zinc, and B12
In addition to protein and calcium, vegetarians need to get adequate amounts of iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
Iron carries oxygen in the blood, and iron deficiency can leave you feeling tired. Vegetarian sources of iron include iron-fortified cereals as well as spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, whole-wheat breads, peas, dried apricots, prunes, and raisins.
Zinc is necessary for a variety of functions including helping maintain the immune system and keeping it functioning properly. Zinc sources include a variety of beans (white beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas), cereals fortified with zinc, wheat germ, milk and milk products, and pumpkinseeds.
Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products and some fortified foods. Vegetarians can get it from milk products, eggs, and B12-fortified products including some breakfast cereals, soy-based beverages, and vegetable burgers.
7| And don’t forget fiber
Not only are high-fiber foods tasty (think hearty stews with beans and desserts with fresh apples and pears), but they also help control hunger, lower cholesterol, and maintain digestive health. Fiber is the part of plant foods that our body can’t digest or absorb into the bloodstream, which means it doesn’t provide us with any calories, but it does flush the digestive system as it moves through our bodies.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends eating 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, but estimates show that most of us fall short of that, consuming only about 14 grams daily. Boosting your fiber intake is easier than you might think. It helps to think in groups of 10—getting 10 grams in the morning, 10 at lunch, and 10 at dinner. Swap your standard breads and pastas for 100-percent whole-wheat varieties. Trade out your breakfast cereals for bran or oatmeal, and whole-wheat couscous for white rice—little changes like these add up to big benefits. Here are some other simple substitutions and tips:
• Eat the skin. Whether it’s an apple, pear, or potato, most of the fiber is in the skin.
• Read the Nutrition Facts labels for cereals. While 5 grams of fiber is good, 8 grams or more is better.
• Choose breads and crackers that have at least 2 grams of fiber per slice or serving.
• Cook vegetables briefly. The longer vegetables cook, the more fiber they lose. Try steaming them until they’re crisp-tender to retain most of the fiber content. Also, snack on raw vegetables. Salads, with their vegetables and seeds or nuts toppings, make a good high-fiber option.