By Kimberly Oliva, UC Davis Healthy Aggies Intern
Under the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), my plate suggests a serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and protein for a balanced meal. But what comes to mind when “protein” is mentioned? Is it chicken, turkey, beef, pork? Or is it tofu, beans, nuts? Those who choose to consume no animal meat and just fuel up on plant-based sources may do so because of health concerns, moral values, animal welfare, or just personal preference. No matter the reason, having a well-planned vegetarian diet that meets daily nutritional needs is essential.
What is a vegetarian diet?
There are a variety of vegetarian diets. For instance, there is lacto-vegetarian which excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs but allows dairy products. There is also ovo-vegetarian that excludes meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products but allows eggs. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry but allows dairy products and eggs. Pescatarian diet excludes meat, poultry, dairy and eggs but allows fish. And lastly there is a vegan diet which excludes anything that comes from an animal.
Things to look out for on a vegetarian diet…
Major nutrients of concern in following a vegetarian diet includes getting adequate protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and iron. These nutrients play a role in building and repairing tissues, maintaining and promoting proper growth and development of bones and teeth, for prevention of anemia, etc. All these nutrients are vital for the human body to function well.
Planning a healthy vegetarian diet
So, how can you plan a healthy vegetarian plate without meat as a source of protein? It depends on the type of vegetarian diet you follow. For example, those who are vegetarian use tofu as a substitute for many dishes that have chicken or meat, as it is a complete source of protein containing all 9 essential amino acids. Most other plant-based proteins provide complete protein when combined with a grain. Examples include rice and beans, peanut butter with whole wheat toast, or a salad with sunflower seeds and chickpeas will get you complete plant-based protein.
Besides having adequate protein intake, making sure you are obtaining the other essential nutrients of concern. Many plant-based products or dairy products, provide you with these essential nutrients like iron (legumes), calcium (soybeans, milk), vitamin D (mushrooms, fortified dairy products), vitamin A (carrots, broccoli), zinc (soy products, nuts, and seeds), etc. A single food can only supply you with so many nutrients so a variety of foods is important. If you question nutrient adequacy, speak with a registered dietitian.
Example of a Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with toast
Ingredients: eggs, cheese, spinach, onion, tomatoes, avocado, little bit of olive oil, whole wheat bread🡪 season to taste with pepper and salt
Ingredients: beans (any type), onion, tomatoes, carrots, squash, eggplant, celery, cheese, water/vegetable stock 🡪 seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne, pepper, paprika, cumin to taste
Dinner: Crispy tofu with roasted vegetables and rice
Ingredients: firm tofu (seasoned to taste), olive oil, choice of vegetables, steamed rice