By Hartje Andresen
Are you looking to add more vegetables to your diet or eating vegetarian more often, but are unsure about how to achieve a balanced nutrition on a plant based concept? Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains and fruits can improve body weight and cholesterol levels as well as reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and even some types of cancer – yet approximately 90% of Americans do not meet the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
If you normally eat meat every day (even cold cuts and bacon crumbles count here!), there is a chance that you are consuming more meat than you need for a balanced diet. But you do not have to become a vegetarian to enjoy the benefits that eating more vegetables can bring to your health and well-being. For example, you could try having 2 vegetarian days per week, 2 days with egg dishes, 2 days where meat is served and 1 day with fish for dinner.
Key Foods & Nutrients For A Healthy, Filling Diet
When you include more vegetarian days in your week, it can be helpful to plan ahead and be aware of our bodies’ nutritional needs in order to achieve a balanced diet.
- Protein is an important nutrient that many people associate with eating lean meat, eggs and dairy. However, there are plenty of plant sources of protein, such as peas, beans and other legumes, soy and soy products, nuts, nut butters, seeds and whole grains that a vegetarian meal can be centered around. Most plant proteins are considered “incomplete”, meaning they are lacking one or several of the essential amino acids our body needs.
- By combining a variety of plant-based proteins, for example rice & beans, or oatmeal & almond butter, we can still get all the necessary building blocks for the different kinds of proteins that exist in our body.
- Iron is another key nutrient that plays a vital role for our health and well-being. Iron from plant sources is harder to absorb for our bodies than iron from meat, so if you are going meat-less, it is a good idea to focus on iron-rich foods such as beans, tofu, lentils, spinach and other leafy greens, broccoli, nuts and seeds. In the US, breakfast cereals and bread made from enriched flour have usually been fortified with iron as well.
- Vitamin C can additionally help our body with the iron absorption, so including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet will be extra beneficial.
- Calcium is vital for healthy bones and body functions. One of the foods with the highest nutrient density of Calcium is cheese, but if you are trying to cut down on your dairy consumption, you can also get adequate amounts from tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens and broccoli, for example. Many non-dairy milk alternatives and even some fruit juices are also fortified with calcium.
- Vitamin B12 is an essential Vitamin that can be found only in animal products. Vegetarians can get it from eggs and dairy, but vegans might want to consider talking to their doctor about taking a supplement. If you are only eating vegetarian or vegan on some days, you usually would not need to supplement, as the intake over the course of the entire week will most likely meet the requirements.
- Zinc is another nutrient often found in meat, eggs and cheese, but you can also boost your zinc intake with certain nuts and seeds such as cashews, pumpkin seeds or pine nuts, and even legumes and grains, however not as efficiently.
- Omega 3 fatty acids are usually found in fish and eggs. If these are not included in your diet, these essential fats can be added into your menu with chia seeds, flaxseed oil or walnuts, for example.
Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes
Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes, nuggets, burgers and sausages are more popular than ever, and available in most supermarkets – but keep in mind that products are not automatically more healthy because they are labeled vegan. Vegan “junk food” does exist – these foods are often highly processed and can be high in sodium, sugar or fat.
Finding A Healthy Balance, i.e. 'Flexitarian'
A “plant based” diet offers a healthy approach that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods from plant sources, but does not eliminate animal products altogether. As the name suggests, the basis of the diet should consist of plants: vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, with preference given to the least processed, natural form of foods. This type of eating is a popular approach for many people that offers numerous health benefits.
While most of the protein in a plant-based diet comes from plant sources, minimally processed and sustainably sourced animal products like dairy, eggs and even meat can be included occasionally and in moderation in this style of eating. By allowing for flexibility, it is easier to make personal adjustments than with a more restrictive vegetarian or vegan diet. It is therefore often referred to as “flexitarian” diet, a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian”, and continually gaining in popularity amongst nutritionally and environmentally conscious people.
While many dishes work great if you just omit the meat in the recipe (like chili with beans, vegetable stews and curries), some of your favorite meat-centered meals may not feel quite as satisfying without it, and may leave your body (and your taste buds!) craving additional nutrients.
But meat-less meals do not have to be bland or boring! On the contrary, take advantage of the abundance of the many delicious vegetarian and vegan recipes available online, get creative with using new ingredients, fragrant herbs and aromatic spices! Have fun experimenting in the kitchen, ordering a plant-based dish at your favorite restaurant, and remember that skipping the meat leaves more room on your plate and in your stomach for plenty of plant-based superfoods!
* Disclaimer: this article is for informative purposes only and not a replacement for personalized nutritional advice. Please discuss any significant changes to your diet with your physician and always consult with your doctor about dietary recommendations if you have pre- existing health conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders or neurological issues.*