Vegetarian Smart

by Brooke on August 2, 2011

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I have been getting a lot of requests lately to write about how to eat healthy as a vegetarian.  The American Dietetic Association states that, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Vegetarian diets may help reduce the risk of:  hypertension, diabetes, some cancers, coronary artery disease, and renal disease.  However, a decrease in these health risks could only occur if a vegetarian diet is planned correctly and followed appropriately.


There are a few different types of vegetarian diets.  A semi-vegetarian consumes dairy products, eggs, poultry, and fish. However, they exclude red meats.  A pesco-vegetarian consumes dairy products, eggs, and fish.  A lacto-ovo-vegetarian consumes dairy products and eggs.  A lacto-vegetarian consumes only dairy products and a ovo-vegetarian consumes only eggs.  A vegan does not consume any animal products or animal derivatives.

Needed Nutrients

Protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are abundantly found in meat and dairy products.  Since, certain vegetarians do not consume meat, dairy, or both it is important to make sure these nutrients are consumed from other foods.

Good sources of:

Protein: Grains (i.e. barley, bulgur, corn, rice, oats), legumes (i.e. soybeans, lentils, dried peas, dried beans), seeds, nuts, nut butters, vegetables (smaller amounts), tofu, toasted wheat germ, veggie burgers, meat, eggs, and dairy products

Iron: Meat, fish, poultry, shellfish, legumes (smaller amount), dark green leafy vegetables, and fruit

Zinc: Meat, fish, poultry, shellfish, eggs, whole grain foods, vegetables, nuts

Calcium: Dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified soy milk, and legumes

Vitamin D: fish liver oil, eggs (smaller amount), canned fish (smaller amount), fortified milk and margarine

Vitamin B12: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, and fortified cereals

Now for the party questions (questions I would get asked at a party):

Are there some foods that I can get a few of those nutrients at once from?  Yes.

To get adequate protein, iron and zinc consume:  beans, lentils, nuts, or seeds.

To meet your nutritional needs for vitamin B12, Calcium, and vitamin D consume: milk or fortified milk substitutes (soy, rice, almond).

What are complementary proteins and how do I get them?

Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids (building blocks) that your body needs.  Some foods do not contain all of these amino acids and are thus called incomplete proteins.  Examples of this are grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.  Animal products and soy products are complete proteins.  It is important for vegetarians to make sure that they are consuming incomplete proteins that complement each other.

Example:  Grains are low in the amino acid lysine.  Legumes are low in the amino acids: methionine, cysteine, and tryptophan.  So if you consume rice with beans you are consuming all your essential amino in one meal, because they both have amino acids that the other food is low in or completely lacks.

KEY:  Grains complement legumes.  Legumes complement nuts and seeds.  However, grains do not complement nuts and seeds.

What is a good recipe substitution for meat?

All you have to do is a little bean math!  Just replace every one ounce of meat with 1/4 cup of beans.

Do you have another party question?


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ swanky dietitian August 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Great post! People always seem to be concerned about protein. there are so many plant protein options out there. My sister is a recent vegetarian. She does fine but I always encourage her to eat more legumes. She ends up eating a lot more carbs.


Brooke August 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Thanks Kristen! Your sister is lucky you are an RD :)


Eric August 4, 2011 at 10:10 pm

I have several friends who have gone vegetarian/vegan and swear by it, saying they feel more energized and have lost weight, with little other change in their diets. But conversely, I have several friends who have done basically the opposite: they’ve begun “paleo” or “atkins” diets. They, too, have lost weight and feel more energized.

The paleo diet, as I understand it, consists of anything a caveman could have eaten raw – such as fruit, nuts, vegetables, and meat (because cavemen ate it raw). Paleo eaters avoid rice, bread, beans, potatoes, among other things. They eat a LOT of meat, with the justification that cutting down on the carbs prevents fat from being metabolized. What’s your take on the paleo/Atkins diet? I know the Atkins guy died of a heart attack (right?) but several of my friends swear by it :)


Brooke August 8, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Hi Eric! Thanks for the questions!!! I think I need to write a post on this! Here are the cliff notes: Atkins – Our bodies’ main fuel source is carbohydrates. If we consume to little, our bodies need to break down muscle and fat to function, thus you burn fat. However, there are numerous unhealthy side effects to this diet and I do not recommend it! Paleo – Are we cavemen? No, we evolved and so has our eating habits and cooking methods 😉


Eric August 8, 2011 at 3:21 pm

My takeaway has been: carbs + meat = fast track to weight gain. Remove one or the other, and weight control becomes much easier. However, it seems logical that cutting back on meat is the healthier route to choose.


Janaye December 23, 2011 at 3:59 am

Very impressive posting!


Lauren August 5, 2011 at 8:50 pm

I wonder if people who aren’t vegetarians look to see if they’re getting enough of various nutrients. You can be deficient or imbalanced regardless of which way you lean. “Party Questions” cracks me up.


Brooke August 8, 2011 at 3:04 pm

You are right Lauren! Any eating pattern may be low in essential nutrients, if individuals are not consuming a healthy variety of foods. Glad you liked the party questions :)


Brett August 16, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I think it is also worth noting that, that complimentary proteins don’t have to be eaten in the same meal or mixed together. Because the body is constantly breaking down and building amino acids to make proteins with a combination of exogenous and endogenous amino acids in an amino acid pool, as long as you are covering foods that give you all the essential amino acids at some point in the day, you should be good. I was eating vegan for about 5 years, and really never felt any different as an omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, and have felt good and healthy doing any of the diets.


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