With proper planning, a vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice, said Easter H. Tucker, interim family and consumer sciences program leader for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Balanced vegetarian diets can be a good source of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
“The idea that all vegetarian diets are lacking in sufficient nutrients is a common concern,” she said. “According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, however, a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs for an individual.”
Tucker said people choose to become vegetarians for different reasons including health, environmental and ethical concerns, dislike of meat, non-violent beliefs, compassion for animals and economics.
The key to establishing a healthy vegetarian eating pattern is consuming a variety of foods and the right amount of foods to meet one’s calorie and nutrient needs.
To do so, individuals can follow these tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
• Think about protein. Protein needs can easily be met by eating a variety of plant foods. Sources of protein for vegetarians include beans and peas, nuts and soy products (such as tofu and tempeh).
• Don’t forget the calcium. Calcium is used for building bones and teeth. Some vegetarians get their calcium through dairy products. Other sources of calcium include calcium-fortified soymilk, tofu made with calcium sulfate, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice and some dark-green leafy vegetables (bok choy and collard, turnip and mustard greens).
• Make simple changes. Many popular main dishes are or can be vegetarian. Pastas, pizzas, lasagnas, stir-fries and burritos can all be prepared without including any meat products.
• Enjoy a cookout. For barbecues, try veggie or soy burgers, soy hot dogs, marinated tofu or tempeh, and fruit kabobs. Grilled vegetables are great options too.
• Include beans and peas. Because of their high nutrient content, consuming beans and peas is recommended for everyone, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Enjoy some vegetarian chili, three bean salad, split pea soup or hummus-filled pita sandwiches.
• Try different veggie versions. A variety of vegetarian products look and may taste like their non-vegetarian counterparts. However, they are usually lower in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. For breakfast, try soy-based sausage patties or links. For dinner, rather than hamburgers, try bean burgers or falafel (chickpea patties).
• Make some small changes at restaurants. Most restaurants can make vegetarian modifications to menu items by substituting meatless sauces or non-meat items, such as tofu and beans for meat, and adding vegetables or pasta in place of meat. Ask about available vegetarian options.
• Remember that nuts make great snacks. Choose unsalted nuts as a snack and use them in salads or main dishes. Add almonds, walnuts or pecans instead of cheese or meat to a green salad.
• Get your vitamin B12. The vitamin is naturally found only in animal products. Vegetarians should choose fortified foods such as cereals or soy products or take a vitamin B12 supplement if they do not consume any animal products.
• Find the right vegetarian pattern. Visit www.dietaryguidelines.gov and see Appendix 5 of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) for information on healthy vegetarian eating patterns.
“Those interested in becoming vegetarians simply need to approach the change in a way that is comfortable to them and have a plan that allows them to eat a balanced diet,” Tucker said.
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