When it comes to matters of health, there are lots of debates and conflicting information. One expert says this diet is bad, while another sings it praises. A food is good for you one day and bad the next. When it comes to eating right, it is easy to feel a bit lost. But, generally speaking, what constitutes a healthy diet is pretty standard and has held up over the years. Going vegetarian can be great for your health, but because you are cutting out certain items from your diet altogether, not getting enough of certain nutrients can be a possibility. Here are some tips for eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet.
In a culture obsessed with protein, it is often thought that vegetarians are sorely lacking in this vital nutrient, but nothing could be further from the truth. First, we require much less protein than we think; out of the three macronutrients—carbohydrates and fats being the other two—our need for protein in much smaller in comparison. Standard recommendations call for only 10 to 15 percent of our daily calories. If dairy and eggs are a regular part of your diet, you are getting enough protein for sure. If you do not eat these foods or you eat them sparingly, you can easily meet your needs by making sure to eat lots of soy products, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Soy is a great choice in particular because it is considered a ‘’complete’’ protein, meaning it has all the essential amino acids in the amounts we require. There are many great vegetarian recipes that allow you to create hearty, meaty meals with vegetarian proteins.
If you consume dairy products, calcium will not be an issue for you; but, if you follow a vegan diet– which is void of any foods of animal origin—or strictly limit dairy, as many vegetarians do, you need to make a conscious effort to consume other calcium-rich foods and beverages. Soy, particularly tofu, is a good source of non-dairy calcium. Look for orange juice, soy milk and other items fortified with this nutrient vital for bone health. Other good sources include leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds. You might also consider supplementation, but do not take more than 500 milligrams at a time as your body cannot really absorb more than this at once, and the rest will be wasted.
Iron is another important consideration when following a balanced vegetarian diet. Animal flesh is typically the primary source in the average diet and contains a form of iron—there are two—that may be more easily absorbed by the body. Since your body does not absorb the form found in plants as well, you really need to make sure you are eating a wide variety of foods with iron on a regular basis to compensate. Besides iron-fortified foods such as cereal, other good sources include beans, peas, lentils and leafy green vegetables. Consuming foods and drinks rich in vitamin C along with iron-rich foods will help your body absorb this nutrient more efficiently. Do not ever take iron supplements without talking to a doctor—they can be quite toxic when used improperly.
Last, and certainly not least, is the whole vitamin B12 issue. This nutrient is vital for neurological health and deficiencies have been linked to increased risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. There is a lot of misinformation about vegetarians and B12 that may be compromising people’s nutritional status. Once again, if you eat eggs and dairy, you are getting B12 in your diet, but if you want to go vegan, you must take care to include foods fortified with this vitamin, such as cereals. Claims that you can get B-12 from plant foods such as sea vegetables are not wholly accurate—they contain analogues, or inactive, forms of the vitamin that the body cannot use. Taking a supplement may also be a good idea.
Kelli Cooper is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about healthy diets and cooking; if you are in need of some healthy meal ideas, check out Hamilton Beach recipes.