I personally love vegetarian dishes and I truly believe that they can be quite nutritious, balanced and healthy. There are studies that suggest that vegetarianism is the way to go – if done right, you cannot go wrong with a vegetarian diet! Knowing what I know as a dietitian I too have to agree with that! Vegetarian dishes can be nutritionally complete if planned carefully. Does this mean that you should drop meat and go this path? Not at all. However, you can take advantage of healthy vegetarian dishes when meat isn’t around. You can rotate and occasionally include a delicious & nutrient dense vegetarian dish into your meal routine.
There is a lot to vegetarianism. I could put out a series of classes on this topic. Hence, this post will only vaguely touch on the topic and I will highlight the main points.
You probably heard that there are different types of vegetarians:
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians – they do not eat meat, poultry nor seafood; however, they do eat dairy products and eggs.
• Ovo-vegetarians – no meat, no poultry, no seafood, and no dairy products however eggs are all right.
• Vegan (total vegetarian) – these guys will not eat anything that comes from animals. This is a strictly plant based diet that is based on whole grains, seeds, nuts, lentils, fruits and vegetables.
Vegetarian diet can get a little tricky due to the number of nutrients present in meats and other animal based foods. These guys have to put a bit more time into planning their meals (especially in the beginning). Some of the nutritional concerns for vegetarians are:
• Vitamin D
• Vitamin B-12
As you probably figured these are the nutrients that are present in meats and dairy products and those are the main foods that many vegetarians avoid. So how do they make up for this? Well believe it or not you can get all the above nutrients from eating a plant based diet but like I said it takes a bit of research and planning.
Plant based foods such as beans, lentils, seeds, nuts and whole grains are abundant in protein. This protein, however, is not complete and vegetarians have to mix up their proteins sources on a daily basis in order to get all of the necessary (essential) amino acids. These are amino acids that the body does not produce on its own and they need to come from diet. Quinoa is probably the only one known seed (commonly known as a whole grain) that contains complete protein and its protein content is of meat quality!
Lacto-ovo vegetarians can easily get their complete protein from dairy products and eggs.
Iron can be a bit tricky for vegetarians. Iron present in meats is absorbed a lot easier than the iron present in plant based foods. Good news is that vitamin C helps in iron absorption. So when you’re eating beans, it is a good idea to supplement the meal with vitamin C or simply have a vitamin C rich food on the side. Also since plant based iron is not that well absorbed by our bodies, it could never hurt to take an iron supplement. This is especially important for vegetarian women who obviously menstruate and poor iron intake can easily lead to iron deficiency anemia. Bottom line is, as a vegetarian, you have got to be aware of all your plant based iron sources and take advantage of them.
Did you know that spending 10 minutes in the sun gives you your daily need of vitamin D? Not all of us can do this and so we get our vitamin D from vitamin D – fortified milk. Vegans don’t drink milk but they can get vitamin D from other milks such as soy milk or rice milk which are also fortified.
You definitely need your zinc. So if you’re a vegetarian you will get it from whole grain cereals, peas, and oatmeal.
Vitamin B-12 is also a tricky one. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get it easily from dairy products and eggs. Vegans can get vitamin B-12 from fortified drinks (soy milk and such), ready to eat cereals, and some meat substitutes. It may also be necessary to supplement.
As you can see it gets tricky. You have to do a bit of planning and know nutrition basics to be a successful and healthy vegetarian. For your benefit, grocery stores now have many ready to eat food options for vegetarians. One of my favorite brands is Amy’s. I have seen and tasted some of Amy’s delicious “TV dinners” that were fairly healthy & very nutritious.
What are your thoughts and experiences with the vegetarian diet? And if you’re a vegetarian already, tell us about your experience.