There’s more to being a vegetarian than cutting meat from the menu.
A vegetarian menu emphasizes the foods all Americans are encouraged to eat regularly: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes. Vegetarian diets are often lower in calories than the typical American diet, so it’s no surprise that vegetarians are, on average, thinner than their nonvegetarian peers. And eating a primarily plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
The February issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource offers suggestions for a well-balanced vegetarian diet, noting that the variety of available meat-free options makes the transition easier than ever before. With a little planning, you can follow a vegetarian diet that meets all of your nutritional needs. Important nutrients to include are:
Protein. Eggs, dairy products, soy products, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains fill this important role. Meatless products like tofu dogs, soy burgers and texturized vegetable protein can be excellent protein sources. Many meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans. Soy offers a balance of all essential amino acids, just as meat does. These meat substitutes are often lower in calories and saturated fat than meat.
Calcium. Low-fat dairy and dark green vegetables like collard greens, kale and broccoli are good sources of calcium. Tofu enriched with calcium, as well as fortified yogurt and juices, also are options.
Vitamin B-12. This is found almost exclusively in animal products, including milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans—those who eat only plant-based foods—can get B-12 from enriched cereals, fortified soy products or by taking a supplement.
Iron. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, baked potatoes with skin, dark leafy vegetables and dried fruit are good sources of iron. Eating foods high in vitamin C (strawberries, citrus fruits) along with iron-rich foods can help increase iron absorption.
Zinc. Zinc is found in whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts, wheat germ, mushrooms and peas. It’s also found in dairy foods and eggs.
Editor’s note: Because you’re dedicated to organic living, we recommend buying certified organic foods, when available, to maximize flavor, while minimizing your risk of exposure to pesticides, chemicals and preservatives.