By Florencia Tagliavini, Nutritionist
If you are a vegetarian or thinking about becoming a vegetarian, you may be wondering if you are getting enough of the appropriate nutrients. First of all, it´s important to understand that there are different types of vegetarians. Vegans who consume no animal products at all may need to pay more attention to certain nutrients than lacto-vegetarians who consume dairy or ovo-vegetarians who consume eggs, but no other animal products or ovo-lacto vegetarians who consume both eggs and dairy. Nutrients that could potentially become an issue are protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12. With that said, you can plan and consume a perfectly healthy, balanced and nutrient-sufficient vegetarian diet.
Here are a few tips to help meet your calorie and nutrient needs:
1. Think About Protein
Your protein needs can easily be met by eating a variety of plant foods. Sources of protein for vegetarians include beans and peas, nuts and nut butters, and soy products (such as tofu, tempeh). Lacto-ovo vegetarians also get protein from eggs and dairy foods.
2. Bone up on Sources of Calcium
Calcium is used for building bones and teeth as well as other functions such as nerve signaling. Some vegetarians consume dairy products, which are excellent sources of calcium. Other sources of calcium for vegetarians include calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage), tofu made with calcium sulfate, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and orange juice, and some dark-green leafy vegetables (collard, turnip, and mustard greens; and bok choy), almond butter or tahini. If you´re up for making your own plant-based milk, sesame seed milk is an excellent source.
3. Make Simple Changes
Many popular main dishes are or can be vegetarian - such as pasta primavera, pasta with marinara or pesto sauce, veggie pizza, vegetable lasagna, tofu-vegetable stir-fry, and bean burritos.
4. Enjoy a Cookout
For barbecues, try veggie or soy burgers, soy hot dogs, marinated tofu or tempeh, and fruit kabobs. Grilled veggies are great, too!
5. Include Beans and Peas
Because of their high nutrient content, consuming beans and peas is recommended for everyone, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Enjoy some vegetarian chili, three bean salad, or split pea soup. Make a hummus-filled pita sandwich.6. Try different Veggie Versions
A variety of vegetarian products look - and may taste - like their non-vegetarian counterparts but are usually lower in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. For breakfast, try soy-based sausage patties or links. For dinner, rather than hamburgers, try bean burgers or falafel (chickpea patties). But, eat these products in moderation, pay attention to the ingredients they contain as these can be highly processed.
7. Enhance Iron Absorption
Many plant-based foods contain iron such as fortified breakfast cereals, soybeans, beans, eggs, and some dark leafy greens including spinach and chard. These foods contain non-heme iron which is not absorbed as well as heme iron from animal products. Consuming a good source of vitamin C (citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes) with each meal will help increase iron absorption.
8. Nuts make great snacks or can complement various dishes
Choose unsalted nuts as a snack and use them in salads or main dishes. Add almonds, walnuts, or pecans instead of cheese or meat to a green salad. Try making nut butters, spreads from nuts as well as seeds. You can even make a delicious cashew "cheese".
9. Get your vitamin B12
Good sources of vitamin B12 are only naturally found in animal products. Vegetarians should choose fortified foods such as cereals or soy products, or take a vitamin B12 supplement if they do not consume any animal products. Check the Nutrition Facts label for vitamin B12 in fortified products.
10. Eat Healthy Foods
Many people think that eating a vegetarian diet is healthier, but this all depends on the foods you choose to eat and the entirety of your diet. Eat fresh, whole foods and try to stay away from too many processed and refined food items. Make sure you get your 5-9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables!
Source: United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.