These days, vegetarian diets come in many forms. The types range from super strict (vegan) to really flexible (aptly named “flexitarian”) and everything in between. If you’re interested in the lingo: Vegans eat no animal products at all, while ovo-lacto vegetarians include eggs and dairy. Pescatarians are ovo-lacto vegetarians that also eat fish, and flexitarians eat mainly vegetarian meals, but occasionally include other non-vegetarian foods, such as a grass fed beef now and then.
Willow and I both fall in the category of flexitarians. We tend to eat lots of vegetarian meals, but also include sustainably raised meats, fish, and poultry. As dietitians, our jobs are to help people find the diet that suits their preferences and lifestyle best and make sure it’s well-balanced, tastes great, and is meeting all of their nutrient needs. Often times, this means working to put together well-balanced vegetarian diets. So whichever your preference of vegetarianism, here are the most important Dos and Don’ts you’ll want to consider if you’re following a vegetarian lifestyle.
Eat foods rich in, or fortified with, calcium: Calcium is an IMPORTANT mineral. Skimping can do long-term damage to your bones and teeth, and may even have an impact on your weight. The great thing about non-fat/low-fat dairy products is that you get protein (and oftentimes vitamin D) along with lots of calcium (about 33% of your total daily needs with one serving). Non-dairy sources of calcium and vitamin D are mainly fortified milk alternatives like almond milk, soy milk, or hemp milk. Additional non-dairy sources of calcium include: tofu made with calcium, soybeans, bok choy, kale, broccoli, white beans, and almonds.
If you’re not eating 3 servings of dairy each day, consider taking a calcium supplement with vitamin D to make up the difference, or as an insurance policy in case you don’t eat enough dairy, make up the calcium by eating other calcium-rich foods. Aim for 1000mg of calcium (foods + supplements) and 1000 IU vitamin D (food + supplements) each day.
Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C: The type of iron found in vegetarian food sources is not as efficiently absorbed by our bodies as the iron found in meat, chicken, etc. However, pairing vegetarian sources of iron with foods that contain vitamin C increases the absorption of the iron. Foods that are packed with vitamin C are: Bell peppers, citrus fruit, kiwi, mangos, pineapple, papaya, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, and kidney beans.
Be mindful of protein: About 20% of your total calories should come from protein. This means that someone following an 1800 calorie diet would need about 90g of protein each day. While this may sound like a whole lot, it is achievable via a balanced diet. For instance, 3/4 cup lentils has 13g protein, 1 cup 0% plain Greek yogurt has 22g, an egg has 6g, 1 cup soymilk has 7g, and 3/4 cup cooked quinoa delivers around 7g. The key is to make sure you include one or two sources of protein at every meal and snack occasion – so that over the course of your day, you get enough.
Eat mostly processed sources of protein: Swapping out meat for processed “meat-like” substitutes isn’t a healthy swap at all. Instead of opting for processed veggie meat alternatives such as frozen soy burgers (Boca, etc.), which contain more sodium and additives, opt for whole food protein source such as lentils, whole soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame), beans (black, white, kidney, garbanzo), yogurt (especially Greek-style), and other non-fat dairy. It’s completely fine to have frozen veggie burgers in the house for a quick meal if you’re short on time, but they’re not something you should rely on for your main protein source.
Think going veg is automatically making your diet healthier: We’ve seen plenty of clients who come into our office eating mainly chips and salsa, and mac & cheese. Yes, while these foods are vegetarian, they are not going to give you the nutrition you need on a daily basis. Being vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean that your diet is balanced or healthier. Vegetarian diets can be great, as long as you put some time into planning your meals and snacks while continuing to make the majority of your food choices whole, unprocessed foods.
Get stuck in a diet rut: When you cut certain foods out of your diet, it can be easy to fall into a “food rut”, eating the same foods day after day because you know you like them and that they are vegetarian. However, it pays to branch out–– both from a nutrition and a flavor perspective. We advise our clients to choose at least 2 different variations of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each week, and then switch those 2 out for something new the next week. This doesn’t have to be a full-on meal/snack overhaul either — maybe you have oats with walnuts and cherries one week and the following week you have oats with hemp seeds and blueberries. You can have acorn squash with tofu and white beans one week, and roasted potatoes with tofu and black beans the following week.