The vegetarian diet is sometimes thought of as a dangerous, unhealthful way to eat. Though given a bad name by vegetarians who cut out meat without replacements for lost nutrition, there are many tasty ways to get nutrients. The main rule of thumb is to plan a diet with a variety of foods from different food groups.
When planning a vegetarian diet, it is especially important to watch for adequate intake of protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins, as these are the benefits obtained from meat. Rest assured, there are many other ways to find the same nutrients. Of the 20 amino acids in existence, only eight are not produced by the body. It was once thought that these eight needed to be combined in intricate ways to get adequate protein, but by eating a range of foods, this should not be a problem.
There are a number of foods that vegetarians can use as substitutes for meat, other than the obvious veggie burgers or garden burgers. For instance, seitan (pronounced say-tawn), a form of wheat gluten which is simmered in soy sauce, kombu (seaweed), and sometimes ginger, often takes the place of turkey in sandwiches. It also shows up in Asian restaurants as mock duck, beef, or pork.
There are also a few soy-derived foods that work well in place of meat. Tofu, derived from soybean curd, comes in a variety of textures from “silken” to “extra firm”. Firm tofu can be diced and inserted in a variety of recipes, including stir frys, soups, or grilled dishes. It also can be made into burgers or mock egg salad. Store tofu in an airtight container, immersed in water. Change the water every day. Or, freeze the tofu, using it as a ground beef substitute in chili. Silken tofu works well in smoothies, spreads, or even cheesecake! Tofu is a versatile food because it has little flavor, and will accept the flavor of the ingredients it is cooked in.
Tempeh (TEM-pay), another product of soybean fermentation, forms firm, chunky whitish cakes that have a mushroom flavor. It is usually sliced and fried, but is as versatile as tofu, tasty in any situation where mushrooms are used.
Foods high in carbohydrates sometimes get a bad name because of their starchy nature. However, the whole grains that they are derived from are extremely nutritious, containing B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. There are many to choose from: wheat, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, rye, cornmeal, and spelt.
Quinoa (KEEN-wah), revered by the ancient Incas as the “mother grain”, is one of the most nutritious grains, containing higher amounts of iron, calcium, and protein. It also contributes to the body’s levels of several B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, iron, and phosphorus. Quinoa can be used in place of any another grain, in cold salads, pilafs, or as hot cereal.
Flaxseed, another of the grains, is the only plant seed which contains omega-3 fatty acids, and is also a rich source of soluble and insoluble fiber. Whole flax seeds, about the size of sesame seeds, are good in breads, and anytime you want to add texture to a batter or salad. Flax seeds can also be ground to form flax seed meal, a great vegan replacement for eggs, or a supplement to smoothies, yogurt, hummus, or cereal. Be sure not to eat too much uncooked flax in an imbalanced diet, as it can lead to health problems.
Though nuts are sometimes criticized for their fat and carbohydrate content, they are a good source of protein, vitamin A and E, potassium, fiber, and phosphorus. In moderation, they are another way to spice up the vegetarian diet, through the sheer variety of types alone: cashews, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, pecans, soy nuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts, and more.
Like nuts, seeds are a versatile food to add to salads and other dishes, or to eat plain. Pumpkin seeds can be roasted and salted, for a protein-rich snack. Sesame seeds add flavor and texture to dishes in an unobtrusive way. Sunflower seeds are an old salad bar standby, of course, but are tasty plain or in breads, as well.
Mushrooms are a good source of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Portabella mushrooms can be grilled and eaten as a hamburger, and a medium-sized one actually has more potassium than a banana!
Pulses (peas, beans and lentils) are also high in protein and iron, and there is a vast number of different kinds, such as black, pinto, kidney, black, and navy beans; chickpeas; and lentils. They absorb the flavor of the spices they are cooked in, so they go well in all types of dishes from Mexican to Indian.
For lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs, cheese, and milk can also be used in recipes. Vegans may want to substitute soy milk or rice milk for cow’s milk. The vitamin D and calcium provided by dairy products can be found in other sources such as sunlight [for vitamin D] and sesame seeds, dried fruits and leafy greens [for calcium]. The dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens are also helpful in augmenting one’s iron intake.
Of course, like any balanced diet, a healthy vegetarian diet should also contain a liberal amount of fruits and vegetables. Try to incorporate as many different colors as possible. This rule of thumb holds true for all foods: variety is the key. There is an endless amount of recipes that can be created from vegetarian-friendly foods. Explore! Enjoy!