There are lots of reasons to choose a vegetarian diet. Whether you’re a vegetarian for moral reasons or to improve your health, there are lots of benefits to foregoing meat. Vegetarian diets generally contain fewer saturated fats, more fibre, less cholesterol and fewer calories. Some studies have shown that vegetarians may also be at lower risk for certain cancers and intestinal diseases such as diverticulosis.
But a vegetarian diet also comes with challenges – meat is one of the easiest ways for the body to get large amounts of protein.
Protein is a key building block for the body and is especially important for athletes, whether amateur or recreational. In addition to being a rich source of protein, meat is also the only natural source of vitamin B12, which is an essential nutrient important for red blood cell production. Deficiencies in vitamin B12 can lead to loss of certain nerve functions, so it’s vital that vegetarians get sufficient B12 in their diet.
Fortunately, the liver stores so much vitamin B12 that it would take years of inadequate B12 intake to suffer from the ill effects. Additionally, many cereals and soy milks are now fortified with Vitamin B12. It’s also a simple matter to get adequate Vitamin B-12 through supplementation.
Some other essential micro-nutrients that are abundantly consumed in a meat-eater’s diet include zinc, calcium, and iron.
But while these nutrients are abundant in meat, they’re also found in a number of foods that are popular in a vegetarian diet. These essential mineral can be found in dairy products, grains, seeds, soy, and wheatgerm. Still, vegetarians should take care to ensure they’re getting an adequate amount of these essential nutrients and take appropriate supplementation if necessary.
Supplementing vegan diet
Despite the challenges of getting sufficient protein without meat, it’s certainly possible to get adequate protein and nutritional intake on a vegetarian diet. However, it’s important to be diligent about protein and B12 intake if you’re a vegetarian. It’s not enough to just throw in a few chunks of tofu or a spoonful of chickpeas with lunch.
Because vegetarian protein sources aren’t as protein dense as meat, vegetarians need to ensure they indulge generously when it comes to vegetarian protein sources. Below are some of the best ways for vegetarians to complement their diet and ensure a balanced macro and micro-nutrient distribution.
Dairy & Eggs
While vegans may avoid dairy and eggs, pesco vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians will still enjoy the nutrients found in meat through eggs and dairy products, since all of the essential nutrients present in meat are also found in dairy products and eggs.
Vitamins & Minerals
Taking multi-vitamins or supplementing specific vitamins and/or minerals ensures that vegetarians get an adequate amount of the micro-nutrients lacking in a plant based diet. Vegetarians should look for supplements that have a healthy dose of vitamin B-12, zinc, iron, and calcium.
Legumes are a class of vegetables that are rich in protein and essential nutrients. They’re a great source of vegetarian protein and one of the healthiest foods available. Beans, lentils, and peas are all classified as legumes.
Legumes are not only a great source of vegetable protein, but they contain no cholesterol, no saturated or trans fats, and are high in potassium, iron, magnesium, folate, and fiber.
They’re also an extremely versatile group of foods that are commonly used in everything from soups, stews, salads, snacks, side dishes, and even as part of the main course. They’re especially popular in Indian and Latin American cuisine.
While not everyone is a fan of tofu, it’s an effective source of protein and micro-nutrients. When cooked skillfully, tofu also goes well with a wide variety of dishes.
A single cup of tofu usually contains approximately 20 grams of protein, so chopping up a block of tofu and mixing it in with your vegetarian stir fry is a great way to replace chicken or beef in terms of protein content.
It not only replaces the protein content, but tofu is also rich in calcium, zinc, and iron, 3 essential nutrients that are abundant in meat.
Protein shakes are one of the most effective ways to ensure adequate protein intake. Protein shakes are sold in powdered form, and can be mixed with water or milk to form a shake. The most popular type of protein shake is created from whey protein, which is produced by filtering milk protein. Whey proteins are quickly and easily absorbed by the body.
Although whey protein is essentially lactose free due to the filtering process, they’re still extracted from dairy products. For this reason, strict vegans may want to forego whey protein and opt instead for hemp protein shakes, which are completely plant based.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for freshness and consistency.