The food that we put into our body creates the foundation of our health. There is no perfect diet for everyone, and it’s essential to find what is best for you. Some people feel energetic and vibrant on a vegetarian or vegan diet, and others feel fatigued or undernourished. Research has shown many health benefits of eating a vegetarian diet, but it is very important to ensure that you are eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
A vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry. It typically includes dairy products and sometimes eggs, unlike a vegan diet that excludes all animal products. A vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs if done properly. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Like any diet, it’s important to limit your intake of processed foods, sweets, and fried, fatty foods. According to the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization, vegetarian diets can potentially lower your risk of certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease, dementia, diverticulosis, gallstones, and rheumatoid arthritis.
A balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats is vital for a healthy vegetarian diet:
- Protein: 20-25% of your daily calories should come from protein. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this is about 400-500 calories (100-125 g) per day.
- Carbohydrates: 45-60% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this is between 900-1200 calories (225 – 300g) per day.
- Fats: 15-20% of your daily calories should come from fats. Choose “healthy” fats (unsaturated fats) like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Nutritional areas that require special attention and potential supplementation when eating a vegetarian diet:
Animal proteins are complete because they provide all essential amino acids. Plant proteins are incomplete because different plant foods lack different amino acids. Vegetarian diets that include certain vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds can provide adequate protein quantity and quality.
Good vegetarian protein sources
Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, peas, whole grain bread, leafy greens, brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and dairy products.
Meat provides heme iron, which is highly absorbed and used by the body. Plant foods provide non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron increases when eaten with a food rich in vitamin C, for example, spinach salad with orange segments. Iron-fortified cereals and grains, legumes, and leafy greens are good sources of iron in plant-based diets.
Good iron sources for vegetarian diets
Iron-fortified cereals, grains (quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal), legumes (lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans), nuts and seeds (pumpkin, squash, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashews), blackstrap molasses, cocoa, and leafy greens (swiss chard, collard greens).
Vegetarian diets that include enough dairy products will meet your calcium needs. Calcium can also be obtained through eating legumes, leafy green vegetables, chia seeds, and calcium-fortified milk replacements (soy, cashew, or almond milk).
Good vegetarian sources of calcium
Dairy products, broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, okra, tofu, tempeh, soybeans, navy beans, fortified soy/rice/almond milk, and fortified orange juice.
This vitamin is contained primarily in animal products and is an essential nutrient, so vegetarians should be aware of good sources and supplement as needed.
Good B12 sources
Fortified foods such as cereals, nutritional yeast, soy milk, dairy products, and eggs. Taking a vitamin B12 supplement is generally a good idea to offset any potential deficiency with a vegetarian diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It’s more difficult for vegetarians to get adequate omega-3 fatty acids from their diet since the two essential omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are mostly available in fish oil.
Good sources of Omega 3s
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are probably the best plant-based source of omega-3. Chia seeds and hemp seeds provide a healthy dose of omega-3’s as well. Mung beans, navy beans, kidney beans, and soybeans are also good sources of Omega 3’s.
Plant-based foods are low in zinc. The high phytate content of vegetarian diets may further reduce absorption rates. Unrefined grains and legumes have phytate, which binds with zinc.
Good zinc sources
Beans (hummus, lentils, black beans, green peas), nuts, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products, tofu, tempeh, edamame, mushrooms, and spinach. Vegetarians might also benefit from taking a daily zinc supplement.
A balanced vegetarian diet should include healthy protein sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, and dairy products. Abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables. Plenty of whole grains and legumes and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados. People that are sensitive to dairy, eggs, tofu, or gluten should make appropriate substitutions.
7 Day Meal Plan
Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with fruit and nuts
Lunch: Salad with sauteed tofu cubes, goat cheese, olive, and apple cider vinegar dressing
Dinner: Whole wheat or gluten-free pasta with tomato or pesto sauce, small salad
Breakfast: Whole-grain cereal with almond milk and fruit
Lunch: Tofurky sandwich with veggies and cheese
Dinner: Veggie stir-fry with tempeh or tofu
Breakfast: Whole grain toast with almond butter and jam, small protein smoothie
Lunch: Soup and salad
Dinner: Mung beans and rice seasoned with curry powder and Bragg’s liquid aminos, side of cottage cheese or yogurt
Breakfast: Protein smoothie
Lunch: Hummus wrap with falafel
Dinner: Vegetarian pizza with lots of veggies
Breakfast: Fruit salad with greek yogurt, granola, and nuts
Lunch: Veggie burger
Dinner: Steamed vegetables, baked tofu with soy sauce and olive oil
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with spinach, mushrooms, and tomatoes
Lunch: Large salad with veggies and a hard-boiled egg
Dinner: Vegetarian lasagna
Breakfast: Whole grain muffin and fruit
Lunch: Vegetarian sandwich with a veggie burger, avocado, and cheese
Dinner: Veggie burrito with fresh salsa and guacamole
If you would like more tips and advice on eating a healthy diet, schedule a free brief meet and greet with one of our doctors by calling 480-588-6856.
Resources for further information on eating a vegetarian diet: