Following a vegetarian diet shouldn't require brain surgery. But, with the abundance of food-related information that many of us attempt to constantly filter, it's easy to get up caught up in the over-analysis of healthy eating and good nutrition when you're attempting to make a change in your life or in your diet. Whether you're already an ardent vegetarian, a newcomer to the plant-based dietary practice, or a dabbler in shying away from meat, poultry, fish and seafood, you've likely contemplated how to get all your daily essential nutrients and what exactly those fundamental nutrients are. Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals, has caused quite a stir around vegetarianism, so it might be useful to take a moment to outline the most basic of take-home messages for optimal eating and nutrition when following a vegetarian diet.
Disclaimer: The following points address a vegetarian diet, a plant-based diet that may also include diary products, eggs and some fish if you're a pescetarian. If you're seeking out guidelines for a vegan diet (strictly zero animal products), much of the below still applies.
1. Protein. Surprisingly, vegetarians have a range of protein options. Aside from fish, eggs and dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, don't forget about beans and legumes, quinoa, nuts and nut butters, tofu, edamame, soy milk, soy yogurt and cheese, and tempeh (fermented soybeans) and seitan (protein from wheat gluten). Yes, it's true that animal-sources of protein are 'complete' proteins and contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need. You can do just fine however, with a varied vegetarian diet that incorporates protein, complex carbs and healthy fats. And keep in mind that soybeans (tofu, soy milk etc.) and quinoa are actually two plant-sources of complete protein. I'd recommend being cautious around more processed forms of vegetarian or soy protein. Your body tends to do best with foods that are fewest in ingredients and that are as close to the original source as possible. So if a veggie burger has more than 3 to 5 ingredients you can't pronounce or don't recognize, leave it on the grocery shelf.
2. Carbohydrates. Carbs play an important part of any diet, but their quality makes a difference when it comes to nutrient value. To ensure you're getting a good variety of vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, fiber and a steady source of slow-burning energy, reach for complex carbohydrates and whole grains. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike have a lengthy list to choose from. Here's a few good picks among others: brown and wild rice, barley, quinoa, millet, wheatberries, bulgur, whole wheat couscous, whole grain breads and cereals, oats, beans and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney, black and white beans), starchier vegetables like sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, winter squashes (butternut and acorn squash, pumpkin) and of course whole wheat pasta, though I will say that I'm personally a sucker for really fantastic regular semolina pasta on occasion. Whole grain and complex carbs help prevent cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol, improve digestion, and are excellent sources of energy.
3. Healthy fats. Another dietary staple, healthy fats help boost heart health and brain function, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, slow down the aging-process, and fill us up fast to improve satiety. Reach for mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids such as: avocado, heart-healthy oils (like olive, sunflower, grapeseed and canola), walnuts and other nuts, seeds, flaxseed and fatty fish (if you're a pescetarian) like salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna and sardines.
4. Think "balance" at meals. If you're looking for the greatest satisfaction and longer-lasting satiety, look no further than a well-balanced plate at mealtimes. Eating and providing our bodies with good quality nourishment should be easy, not mind-boggling. Think back to your childhood (or the idyllic baby-boomer dinner plate). You've got some vegetables going on, ideally about half of your plate, some sort of healthful carbohydrate, and a serving of a lean--vegetarian--protein source. Those three items form a triumvirate at the table to quell hunger and provide all your staple nutrients in one fell swoop.
5. Quality, fresh food is king. Vegetarian or not, you'll get the biggest bang for your nutritional buck with fresh, whole foods. As Michael Pollan states, "Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" - even if it is "vegetarian." Would she eat mashed potatoes that are made from flakes out of a box? Probably not.
6. If weight loss is a goal, then why aren't you losing? This may sound harsh, but if you're seeking to shed a few extra pounds while following a vegetarian diet, but the scale's not budging, you're likely just eating too much. A mountainous plate of pasta with plain marinara sauce does not a well-balanced vegetarian diet make. Just because you've cut meat out of your diet, doesn't necessarily mean weight will fall off. Go back to point 4 - balance and the triumvirate on your plate - and then aim to skim back on portion sizes by at least 15 to 25 percent.
7. Nutrients you might be missing: iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
Here's the one potential, but easily avoidable, trouble spot with vegetarian diets: ensuring you're consuming sufficient iron, calcium and vitamin B12. Iron is best absorbed from animal sources, but there are plenty of good plant-based sources including soybeans, lentils, spinach, quinoa, tofu and Swiss chard to choose from. You get an additional boost in iron absorption when also consuming good amounts of vitamin C, which is usually fairly prevalent in a vegetarian diet thanks to fruits and vegetables. A low-intake of iron-rich foods can lead to anemia.
As for calcium, you'll find it in soy, rice and almond milk, soy yogurt and cheese, tofu, edamame, black beans, dark leafy greens, calcium-fortified OJ and even almonds. These items should appear frequently in your diet to ensure you're hitting calcium targets. Lastly, you've got vitamin B12, which is a little tricky because it's primarily found in meat, dairy products and eggs. B12 is important to prevent anemia and is required to form red blood cells and maintain a healthy nervous system. If you're a dairy and egg-eating vegetarian, you don't have too much to worry about. Many vegetarian and vegan products are now fortified with B12 including soy milk, vegetable stocks and breakfast cereals. Consult your doctor or a registered dietitian if you feel like you're falling short on any one of the above and may require a dietary supplement.