How to Plan a Healthy Vegetarian Diet
A well-planned vegetarian diet can meet all your nutritional needs, but there’s more to being vegetarian than simply eliminating animal foods from your diet.
Planning a vegetarian diet isn’t really that much different from planning a diet that includes animal foods. Like any other well-balanced plan, a healthy vegetarian diet includes plenty of veggies, along with fruits and whole grains. The main difference is that vegetarians get their protein from plant-based sources rather than animals. As long as it’s well thought out, a vegetarian diet can easily provide what your body needs. Let’s explore the options.
Different types of a vegetarian diet
Generally speaking, a vegetarian diet excludes animal flesh. Vegetarians as a whole don’t eat meat, fish or poultry. In its strictest form, the vegan diet, excludes all animal products—like milk, eggs or honey. But there are plenty of variations on the vegetarian theme. There are lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy products (but no eggs), ovo-vegetarians who do just the opposite (eggs, no dairy) and pescatarians, who eat a plant-based diet, but they also eat fish.
Getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet
One of the biggest dietary challenges—especially for strict vegans—is getting adequate protein from plant sources. Proteins are made up of small units called amino acids, which your body uses to manufacture body proteins like hormones, enzymes and muscle tissue. Your body can make some amino acids but not the essential amino acids, so those have to come from your diet.
All animal products—from meat, poultry, fish, as well as milk and eggs—are called complete proteins, because they contain all the essential amino acids and all in the right proportions. The challenge for vegetarians is that most plant foods (with the exception of soybeans) lack one or more essential amino acid, so they’re considered incomplete.
Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy work-around, and that’s to combine plant sources in such a way as to provide all the building blocks that the body needs. The essential amino acid that is lacking in beans, peas or lentils, for example, is abundant in grains. And, conveniently, what grains lack, beans can provide. So, when you pair black beans with rice, or a bowl of lentil soup with whole grain bread, you can provide your body with all the essential amino acids it needs.
One of the most common mistakes that many of my clients make when they decide to “veg out,” is to simply eat everything that used to be on their plates minus the ‘flesh.’ That might be okay if you’re already eating plenty of plant foods and getting adequate protein from plant sources. But I see lots of people who start out with a pretty bad diet, and they don’t do anything other than to cut out all the animal foods. In the end, they just wind up with the poorly balanced diet they started with. Only now they’re not getting enough protein, either.
In short, they’re paying too much attention to what they’re cutting out and not enough attention on what they needed to add in. A diet made up of little more than pancakes and French fries might qualify as vegetarian, but it’s hardly healthy.
Planning a vegetarian diet
A healthy diet, vegetarian or not, consists of a balance of important food groups: fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains. Here are a few basics to get you started.
Have a fruit or veggie at every meal and snack
That’s good advice for everyone. I generally recommend that people strive for at least three fruits a day, then two servings of vegetables at lunch and another two servings at dinner. As calories allow, you can increase these numbers.
Whole grains contribute to protein needs
Whole grains provide some (although not all) essential amino acids, which makes them an important component of a vegetarian plan. The amount you need to eat each day will depend on your calorie and protein needs, but you’ll need a minimum of two daily servings.
Beans, peas and lentils help complete your protein needs
The amino acids found in beans, peas and lentils (and products made from them like tofu, tempeh or protein powders) complement those found in grain foods, which is why these foods are so important. You don’t necessarily have to eat beans and grains at the same meal, but you should make a point to have some of each throughout the day. Again, the amount you need will depend on your calorie and protein needs. As with any other plan, you should aim to have some protein at each meal and snack to meet needs and help with hunger control.
Dairy and eggs are great protein sources for lacto-ovos
It’s somewhat easier to meet protein needs if you’re vegetarian (not vegan) and include dairy products and eggs in diet. These foods provide high quality protein at a relatively low calorie cost.
Protein powders can help meet protein targets
Protein powders made from plant proteins, like soy, or rice and pea, are great for vegetarians and vegans alike. They help boost your protein intake at a relatively low calorie cost. They’re easy to add to foods like protein shakes, cooked oatmeal and even soups to boost protein. And you can tailor the amount you use to your individual needs.
Protein content in vegetarian foods
Pay attention to the calorie cost of some of these foods. Nut butters, for example, do provide some protein, but the calorie cost is relatively high. Also, I included rice, hemp and almond milk on the list because many people use them as alternatives to dairy milk. But notice that they are quite low in protein. Also, I’ve included information on eggs, egg whites and milk-based products for the lacto- and ovo-vegetarians.
|Eggs and Dairy|
|Cottage Cheese, nonfat||1 cup (225g)||28||160|
|Eggs, whole||1 egg||6||85|
|Eggs, whole + whites||1 whole + 4 whites||20||155|
|Egg, whites only||7 whites||25||120|
|Milk, nonfat||1 cup (250ml)||10 (varies)||90|
|Milk, low-fat||1 cup (250ml)||9 (varies)||105|
|Mozzarella Cheese, part skim||1 ounce (30g)||7||70|
|Ricotta Cheese, low-fat||½ cup (125g)||10||120|
|Yogurt, plain, regular style||1 cup (240g)||14||140|
|Yogurt, plain, Greek style||1 cup (240g)||22||140|
|Almond Milk||1 cup (250ml)||1||60|
|Hemp Milk, unsweetened||1 cup (250ml)||3||70|
|Rice Milk||1 cup (250ml)||1||120|
|Soy Milk||1 cup (250ml)||6-8 (varies)||90|
|Beans, Peas, Lentils, Tofu|
|Black Beans, cooked||1 cup (175g)||16||220|
|Edamame soybeans||½ cup (85g)||11||125|
|Hummus||4 Tablespoons (60g)||5||100|
|Kidney Beans, cooked||1 cup (175g)||13||210|
|Lentils, cooked||1 cup (175g)||18||230|
|Nut butter (peanut, almond)||2 Tablespoons||7||200|
|Pinto Beans, cooked||1 cup (175g)||15||245|
|Split Peas, cooked||1 cup (175g)||16||230|
|Tofu, firm||5 ounces (150g)||14||120|
|Tempeh||3 ounces (100g)||18||170|
|Grains and Grain Products|
|Bread, 100% whole grain||1 slice||3-5||100|
|Brown Rice, cooked||1 cup (200g)||6||220|
|Buckwheat, cooked||1 cup (200g)||6||150|
|Millet, cooked||1 cup (200g)||6||200|
|Oatmeal, cooked in water||1 cup (200g)||3||100|
|Quinoa, cooked||1 cup (200g)||8||220|
|Seitan (gluten, or “wheat meat”)||3 ounces/100g||24||130|
|Herbalife Personalized Protein Powder (Soy/Whey Blend)||4 Tablespoons (24g)||20||80|
|Whey protein, unflavored||1 ounce (30g)||20||110|
|Hemp protein, unflavored||1 ounce (30g)||13||110|
|Egg white protein powder, unflavored||23||105|
Written by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training https://discovergoodnutrition.com/2017/01/plant-based-nutrition/