When you hear the term “vegetarian diet,” you might conjure up the image of a mountain of leafy greens, fruits and a few whole grains tossed in for good measure. In other words, you probably think healthy. But eating vegetarian can be just as unhealthy as a meat-based diet. After all, French fries, potato chips and cheese pizza can all be vegetarian. So how should meatless eaters go about getting all the nutrients they need without all of the things they don’t? Here are some ways to do just that. (Always consult with your physician if starting any new diet or supplement plan.)
5 Read the Label
Just because something says vegetarian on the label, that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. A single serving of a popular store brand of vegetarian lasagna contains 840 mg of sodium (35 percent of your daily needs) and 3.5 g of saturated fat (almost 20 percent of your daily needs). Vegetables don’t even show up on the ingredient list until the bottom. Look at the labels and pick things that have vegetables or whole grains as the first ingredients and steer clear of anything that has more than seven or so ingredients–or ingredients that you can’t pronounce.
4 Variety Is the Spice of Life
File this one under diet tips for any diet: Eat a wide variety of foods. The best way to be sure that you’re getting the nutrients you need and not getting too much of the things you don’t need (here’s looking at you, saturated fat) is to eat a wide variety of foods. A vegetarian diet should primarily consist of vegetables, grains and legumes or nuts, but that doesn’t mean you should just eat green beans with every meal. Mix it up and try new things like quinoa, tofu, barley, northern beans, kale, or any other non-starchy vegetable that you stumble across. Make it a goal to try something new every day.
3 Find Substitutions
If you find yourself missing the texture or flavor of meat, there are plenty of plant-based substitutes out there to keep you going. Check your grocer’s health food section or go to a health food store for things like soy dogs, fake chicken products, soy jerky and even meatless ground “beef” and “sausage.” Some manufacturers even make premade meals with meat substitutes already in them.
2 Mind the Nutrients
A few essential nutrients are usually obtained from animal-based sources, like calcium and iron. One nutrient, vitamin B12, can only be found in animal products. If you plan on still eating animal products like milk and eggs, just make sure to include eggs, beans and low-fat milk in your diet. But if you plan on eating a strict vegetarian diet that eliminates all animal-based foods, known as a vegan diet, look for foods that include added B12, calcium and iron, or take a supplement that contains those nutrients.
1 Replace the Protein
The human body needs protein to function, and for most people, meat is the main source for getting it. Luckily, it isn’t as hard as you might think to get the amount of protein that you need. Replace meat with plant-based proteins like legumes, soy products, lentils, nuts, seeds and low-fat cheese (in moderation).