Research supports that a plant-based diet is beneficial to health, but cutting out animal products won’t suddenly make a poor diet nutritious. Whether you are interested in becoming a healthy vegetarian or simply want to improve your eating habits, follow these nutrition tips.
Take a test run.
There are many versions of a plant-based diet.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but not meat, fish, or eggs.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, but not meat or fish.
- Ovo-vegetarians include eggs, but not dairy, meat, or fish.
- Vegans consume no animal products of any kind.
- Flexitarians eat a plant-based diet, but occasionally include meat and other animal products.
Don’t attempt to make all of your dietary changes overnight. Try a new way of eating for a few weeks, and assess how you feel. You might decide you want to include dairy or eggs, or that you want to eliminate animal products altogether.
Pay attention to nutrient intake.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports that well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate. However, when reducing animal products, it’s important to find new sources for the nutrients that you previously obtained from these foods. Here are a few of the specific nutrients that need special attention.
Protein: It is easy to get the protein you need from vegetarian sources, but not if you switch from meat to all fruits and vegetables. Eat protein-rich plant foods such as beans, quinoa, nuts, or seeds regularly.
Iron: Plant-based iron is not as well-absorbed by the body as iron from animal sources. Like protein, a vegetarian diet can provide plenty of iron, but increasing overall iron intake and consuming adequate vitamin C (which helps with iron absorption) are important. (See Eating to Increase Iron Absorption)
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as fish, shellfish, meat, eggs, and dairy. There are no plant sources that contain an adequate amount of the active form of this vitamin. If you still eat eggs, dairy, or fish, a vitamin B12 deficiency may not be a concern. However, if you eliminate all animal products from your diet, talk to your healthcare provider about this vitamin. Despite many circulating myths, vitamin B12 is essential, and because folate can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, you may need a supplement.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as pumpkin seeds, kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, provide short-chain ALA which must be converted to longer chain EPA and DHA to be used by the body. Unfortunately, this conversion rate is low. Plant foods are still considered a beneficial source of omega-3s, but if you do not eat a variety of vegetables or cold-water, fatty fish (rich in EPA and DHA), an algae supplement (a plant-based source of DHA) will help you boost your intake. (See 5 Things to Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Choose minimally processed foods.
Foods marketed as vegetarian can be found all over the grocery store. Take a closer look, and you will see that some of these highly processed foods are also full of sodium, fat, and sugar. There is no need to rely on these foods when eating a plant-based diet. Whether you eat meat or eliminate it, your health will benefit from eating more nutritious, minimally processed and fresh foods. Seek out beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to make up the bulk of your food intake.
Learn new cooking techniques.
Despite the delicious plant-based recipes and menu items that are now available, many people still equate vegetarian to unappetizing. Consider signing up for a vegetarian cooking class or purchase a vegetarian cookbook. Once you learn how to prepare grain salads, mushrooms, tofu, beans, and leafy greens you will enjoy vegetarian eating much more. The knowledge you gain will also allow you to add variety to your diet, ensuring that you get the nutrients your body needs.