Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
With proper planning, a vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice, Easter H. Tucker, interim family and consumer sciences program leader for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said. Balanced vegetarian diets can be a good source of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
“The idea that all vegetarian diets are lacking in sufficient nutrients is a common concern,” she said. “According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, however, a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs for an individual.”
Tucker said people choose to become vegetarians for different reasons including health, environmental and ethical concerns, dislike of meat, non-violent beliefs, compassion for animals and economics.
“Some people may be confused by the terms used to describe different types of vegetarians,” she said. “Often, they think vegetarians or vegans only avoid meat, but the answer is a bit more complex.”
Tucker said some of the most common types of vegetarians are:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians – those who do not eat meat, fish or foul, but eat dairy and egg products.
- Ovo vegetarians – those who do not eat meat, fish or foul, but eat egg products.
- Lacto vegetarians – those who do not eat meat, fish, foul or eggs, but eat dairy products.
- Vegans – those who do not eat any animal products including meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy and honey, and also avoid the use of any items made from animal byproducts such as silk, leather or wool.
“Those interested in becoming a vegetarian should make the transition according to their comfort and preferences,” Tucker said. “Some make the change instantly, while others prefer to gradually adjust their eating habits.”
Tucker said vegetarian cooking can be as simple or complicated, inexpensive or costly, or as plain or exotic as the individual prefers. Vegetables or premade vegetarian products can be purchased from natural food stores or the local supermarket.
When starting to cook vegetarian dishes, individuals can try out cooking methods from Indian, Chinese or Thai cuisines that often exclude meat. On the other hand, they can cook their favorite recipes that usually call for meat, but substitute the meat with tofu, seitan (wheat gluten) or other common meat alternatives.
Dishes such as spaghetti and other pastas, burritos and tacos are easily made vegetarian, Tucker said. First-time vegetarians can also prepare meatless dishes they are likely already familiar with, such as mashed potatoes, three-bean salad, veggie burgers, pancakes and grilled and oven-roasted vegetables.
“As with any diet, when planning a balanced vegetarian diet, the key is to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes,” she said. “This will ensure an individual receives enough protein, iron, calcium and B12.”
To meet their nutritional requirements, vegetarians should eat foods that contain the following nutrients:
- Protein – good sources include beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, tempeh and chickpeas.
- Iron – good sources include dried beans, tofu, tempeh, spinach, chard, baked potatoes, cashews, dried nuts, bulgur and iron-fortified foods such as cereals, instant oatmeal and veggie meats.
- Calcium – good sources include broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, tofu, fortified soymilk and orange juice with calcium.
- Vitamin B12 – good sources include certain brands of cereal, nutritional yeast, soymilk and veggie meats.
“The recommended intake for vitamin B12 in adults is very low, however, it is an essential nutrient,” Tucker said.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarian and vegan diets can meet the nutritional needs of infants and children. The diets of infants and children should contain enough calories to support growth and include reliable sources of key nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins D and B12.
“Those interested in becoming vegetarians simply need to approach the change in a way that is comfortable to them and have a plan that allows them to eat a balanced diet,” Tucker said.
For those who would like to cook a tasty vegetarian dish, Tucker recommends the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Mixing Bowl recipe for three-can chili. The ingredients are inexpensive, and the recipe requires little effort to prepare.
- 1 can beans, 15.5 ounces, low-sodium, undrained (pinto, kidney, red or black beans)
- 1 can corn, 15.5 ounces, drained (or 10-ounce package of frozen corn)
- 1 can crushed tomatoes, 15 ounces, undrained
- Chili powder (to taste)
- Place the contents of all three cans into a pan.
- Add chili powder to taste.
- Stir to mix.
- Continue to stir over medium heat until heated thoroughly.
- Refrigerate leftovers.
Source: USDA Mixing Bowl, Colorado State University and University of California at Davis.
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