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Research clearly associates plant-based diets—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans and low in meats—with better health. The well-publicized “Meatless Monday” campaign, launched in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, reports that going meatless even one day a week will not only reduce cancer and heart disease risk, but it will fight diabetes, curb obesity, and increase your life span. Plus, plant-based diets support the environment by reducing your carbon footprint and water usage and by decreasing dependence on fossil fuels.
Whether you’re a vegetarian (avoiding meat, but still eating eggs and dairy), a vegan (eschewing all animal products), or a pescetarian (including fish and seafood in an otherwise vegetarian or vegan diet), it’s entirely possible to fuel your body for good health, with plenty of energy for exercise left over.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Getting adequate protein is key when choosing a plant-based diet. While dairy and eggs are the most obvious sources of protein in the vegetarian diet, plants contain protein as well. The soybean has long been a remarkably versatile protein source in Asian cultures. Steamed right out of the pod (edamame), roasted (soy nuts), coagulated (tofu), fermented (tempeh), or prepared as paste (miso), porridge, nut butter, or “milk,” soy is an excellent source of protein.
Other legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts) provide protein as well, and world cooking abounds with examples of nutritious meals built around them, such as rice and beans or couscous with chickpeas. Nuts and nut butters are a tasty way to add protein to meals, and they also provide “good” monounsaturated fat.
Grains contain protein as well. The tasty and adaptable grain quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is an excellent protein source.
Vegan vs Vegetarian
Both plant-based diets focus on veggies, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. While both are touted as beneficial to health, they can be lacking in vitamin B12, which comes mostly from animal products. B12 is important for proper red blood cell formation and neurological function. Some foods are fortified with the vitamin, but take some B12 supplements to be sure you’re getting enough.
Vegans do not consume meat, eggs, milk, honey or any food that is derived from animals. The philosophy also extends to not wearing or using any animal-derived products such as leather, wool, or fur.
Vegetarians also do not eat any meat or fish. Some consume dairy and eggs. Their use of animal products such as leather, wool, or fur, is less strict than with most vegans.
Plant-Based Diets: Enough Amino Acids, Iron, Vitamin B12…?
While it was once believed that plant-based meals had to be eaten in combinations that produced “complete proteins” (containing all nine of the essential amino acids), it is now understood that eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds over time can provide all of the amino acids the human body needs.
Iron from plant foods is not as well-absorbed as iron from animal foods like meat, poultry, and fish, so vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of iron deficiency. Common plant sources of iron include fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, spinach, tofu, and raisins. Vitamin C helps boost absorption of iron from plant foods, so try slicing vitamin-C-rich strawberries onto cereal or tossing orange slices into a black bean salad.
Another concern for vegetarians—and especially vegans—is the potential for vitamin B12 deficiency, since B12 is found only in animal products. Fortified cereals and nutritional yeast can help, but you should have a doctor periodically check your B12 levels to see if you need a supplement.
Meat Substitutes for Plant-Based Diets
Today’s market abounds with a wide variety of meat substitutes. Vegetarian burgers, vegetarian hot dogs and sausage, faux chicken patties and nuggets, crumbles for tacos and Bolognese sauces, and even meaty “steak tips” are readily available in the refrigerated or frozen sections of mainstream and specialty stores. Many of these products are soy-based; others employ grains, beans, vegetables, or mushrooms to good effect.
While these pre-packaged options can be helpful additions to a vegetarian diet, it’s important to watch these items for high calories and high sodium.
Fresh-prepared meat-free meals can be just as simple and more satisfying. If you’re just getting started, adapting some traditional favorites can ease the transition. Vegetarian chili is delicious and nutritious with beans, but adding bulgur or other grains can provide a meaty chew. Top with shredded cheese, sour cream, and sliced green onions or cilantro, and serve with sides of rice and cornbread for a crowd-pleasing meal.
Tacos or Sloppy Joes can be made with pre-packaged meatless crumbles, but lentils work nicely as well. Portobello mushrooms are known for their meaty flavor and texture and work well whole as a burger replacement or chopped in pasta sauce. For those avoiding dairy, there are now cheese substitutes that actually melt, and, with some experimentation, milk substitutes can work in baking as well as breakfast cereal.
Many non-Western diets rely less heavily on meats and offer an amazing array of fabulous flavors just waiting to be explored. Chinese vegetable stir-fries and tofu dishes may be familiar to many, but the fresh tastes of Vietnamese cooking, the rich coconut milk curries of Thai, the lentil dal in Indian food, bean dishes in Mexican cooking, and the chickpea-based hummus and falafel from the Mediterranean region are just a few examples of vegetarian options to explore.
Pick a vegetarian cookbook that appeals to you, or use the many free vegetarian websites or the vegetarian sections of popular recipe resources on the Internet.
By Judith Thalheimer
The post was originally published in July 2017. It has since been updated.