By Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D., Associate Editor, Nutrition for EatingWell Magazine
I was a vegetarian for most of my college years, but I was not yet a nutrition major (that came in grad school). My diet in those days consisted of lots of bread, cheese, yogurt and fruit. Not surprisingly, I gained weight and became iron-deficient.
Now years later and pounds lighter, I still favor a meatless diet (although not exclusively). However, as a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor at EatingWell Magazine, I now know how to go meatless without missing out on the nutrients my body needs (nutrients in meat and fish that I can also get through certain “must-have” plant foods).
Must-Read: 4 Ways to Go Meatless
I also know that meatless eating can deliver a lot of health benefits, without sacrificing flavor. As Rachael Moeller Gorman mentions in the May/June 2011 issue of EatingWell Magazine, vegetarians typically have diets richer in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and unsaturated fat, so it’s no surprise that studies have found them to have a lower risk of heart disease. And even going meatless just a couple days a week can lower your risk of diabetes by 28 percent.
All that said, having a balanced diet (meatless or not) is key to proper nutrition, so include these veggie foods in your diet to get critical nutrients your body needs.
Don’t Miss: The Vegetarian Kitchen: Must-Have Pantry Basics
What to Eat: Beans
Key Nutrient You Get: Protein
More Vegetarian Sources of Protein: Nuts and seeds, soy, eggs and dairy
The first thing a lot of people think when they think of a meatless diet is, “where will you get protein?” Most Americans get way more protein—our bodies’ “building blocks”—than we need and that we can even use, so this actually is not a primary nutrition concern. (Most people need between 0.36 and 0.45 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which works out to be about 60 grams for a 150-pound person.)
There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein, including beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, whole grains, tofu and tempeh. With the exception of soyfoods, all these foods offer “incomplete protein,” meaning they have some, but not all, of the essential amino acids we need—the compounds that make up protein. Eating a wide variety of foods ensures that you get all the amino acids, but you don’t need to get all the amino acids at each meal. Eggs and dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt) are other vegetarian options that deliver complete protein.
What to Eat: Dark leafy greens
Key Nutrient You Get: Iron
More Vegetarian Sources of Iron: Beans, fortified breads and cereals, raisins
Iron is an important mineral—it shuttles oxygen from our lungs to our cells—yet iron deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in the world! In the U.S., it affects 2 percent of adult men and 9 to 20 percent of women.
Although iron is most easily absorbed from animal foods (the form of iron called “heme”), you can also get it from plant foods (“non-heme”). You just need to eat greater quantities of it. Iron is found in these plant-based foods: dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), beans and raisins, as well as blackstrap molasses. You can also get iron from fortified breads and cereals (read the Nutrition Facts label to see if a product has iron). Pairing these plant sources of iron with a food rich in vitamin C (such as tomatoes, citrus fruit and potatoes) can help you better absorb iron.
What to Eat: Fortified soymilk
Key Nutrient You Get: Vitamin B12
More Vegetarian Sources of Vitamin B12: Fortified cereals
Vitamin B12 helps your body turn food into energy. Since vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal foods, vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs probably will get enough B12 from these foods, but if you’re going vegan or don’t eat dairy or eggs often, make sure to get some B12-fortified foods in your diet.
Many nondairy milk alternatives have B12 added, as do certain cereals—just check the Nutrition Facts label if you’re not sure if your cereal or milk alternative contains B12.
What to Eat: Whole grains
Key Nutrient You Get: Zinc
More Vegetarian Sources of Zinc: Beans, yogurt, shiitake mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and cereal
Zinc is vital for growth and development at all life stages and also supports immune function (men need 11 mg/day and women need 8 mg/day). Whole grains (about 1.3 mg), beans (1.6 mg), yogurt (2 mg), shiitake mushrooms (0.85 mg), sesame seeds (2 mg per ounce) and cereal all deliver some zinc (all amounts per cup, except where noted).
Recipes to Try: Banana-Bran Muffins and More Whole-Grain Breakfasts
Eat This Vegetable with Whole Grains to Better Absorb Zinc
What to Eat: Walnuts
Key Nutrient You Get: Omega-3 fats
More Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3 fats: Flaxseed, supplements
If you don’t eat seafood you have to make an extra effort to get DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fats that have been praised for their importance in eye and brain development as well as heart health. Although our bodies can create DHA and EPA from ALA, another omega-3 fat found in canola oil, soy, flaxseed, chia and walnuts, we only make small amounts. To cover your bases, look for an algae-based DHA supplement.
Recipes to Try: Walnut Cake and Other Easy Walnut Recipes
Must-Read: 6 Healthy-Sounding Foods That Really Aren’t
What to Eat: Iodized salt (rather than sea salt)
Key Nutrient You Get: Iodine
Normally I wouldn’t go around encouraging people to eat salt—and I’m not... exactly. However, iodine (essential to thyroid health) is another nutrient that’s found in seafood that can be lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets—one study found that 80% of vegans and 25% of vegetarians didn’t get enough. There’s an easy fix, though. Instead of using sea salt, which does not have iodine added to it, opt for iodized salt when cooking. Seaweed is another natural source of iodine, so try making it a part of your diet.
Recipes to Try: Seaweed Tofu Soup, plus More Easy Vegetarian Soups
What are your must-have vegetarian ingredients?
By Kerri-Ann Jennings
Kerri-Ann, a registered dietitian, is the associate editor of nutrition for EatingWell magazine, where she puts her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University to work writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, cook and bake.
Related Links from EatingWell:
- Must-Read: Vegetarian Meal Plans at 1,200, 1,500 and 1,800 Calories
- Recipes to Try: Black Bean Croquettes and More Must-Have Meatless Recipes
- Recipes to Try: Creamy Avocado and White Bean Wrap, plus More Quick Vegetarian Recipes
- Buy the Book: EatingWell Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals
- Get a free trial issue when you subscribe to EatingWell Magazine and sign up for our free e-newsletters!