We all know that nutrition plays an important role in health, but not all of us know what to eat. A diet providing the daily-recommended nutrients takes planning and effort, especially if you’re a vegetarian. Be assured, well-planned meatless diets can meet all of your nutritional needs.
The focus of all diets, including vegetarian diets, should be on healthy, complex carbohydrates. A complex carbohydrate is one that takes the body hours to digest and break down into simple sugars. This long break-down process keeps the blood sugar stable and without rapid fluctuations. Whole grains and their products (such as pastas and breads), beans and lentils, and starchy vegetables (potatoes, squash and yams) are complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down by the digestive system and turned into sugars, providing an initial burst of energy that soon decreases, resulting in fatigue and mood swings. Simple carbohydrates include processed foods that contain flour or enriched white flour, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice and sugar.
In addition to complex carbohydrates, including vegetables and fresh fruit, a balanced diet should include about 20-30% mono and polyunsaturated fats and about 10-20% protein.
Some nutrients, such as protein, calcium, iron, essential fatty acids and vitamin B12, are more prevalent in animal products (meat, dairy and eggs) than in vegetables, fruits and grains. If you choose not to eat animal meat (vegetarian) or any animal products (vegan) you must find other food sources or take dietary supplements to ensure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs.
You’ll want at least 50 percent of each meal to be complex carbohydrates then select other items from the following categories to provide your other needed nutrients:
Protein sources: beans and lentils; tofu, tempeh or soy protein isolate; eggs; dairy products; nuts and seeds; Brewer’s yeast; and protein-rich grains, such as amaranth and quinoa.
Calcium: fortified soy, almond, oat or rice milk; cow’s milk and milk products; fortified orange juice; dark green leafy vegetables; sea vegetables; calcium precipitated tofu (check the label); almonds; lime-processed tortillas with calcium salts; amaranth; dried figs; blackstrap molasses; and carob.
Iron: beans and lentils; whole grains; amaranth; nuts; tahini (sesame paste); dark green leafy vegetables; hijiki (a sea vegetable); wheat grass, prune juice; eggs; blackstrap molasses; and Brewer’s yeast.
Zinc: nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin and sunflower seeds); beans; wheat germ; whole-grain millet, quinoa and amaranth, wild rice, collard greens, yogurt, milk, cheese (especially cheddar), ginger, avocado and Brewer’s yeast.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): cow’s milk and milk products, fortified rice and soy milk, Brewer’s yeast, eggs, wheat grass, fortified soy products*, tempeh*, spirulina*, and nutritional yeast.
*soy forms of vitamin B12 may not be as well absorbed.
Vitamin D: sunlight, fortified soy and rice milk, fortified cow milk, eggs and sunflower sprouts.
Balance your diet with foods from these categories and also focus on color, variety and taste. Try new foods and experiment with flavor combinations, using herbs and spices to make your dishes pop. With proper planning and some creativity a vegetarian diet can be highly nutritious and delicious, too!