“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” - Albert Einstein
Plant-based foods are enjoyed in many cultures around the world. In Jamaica, where fruit and vegetables alike can be enjoyed straight from the ground, many people follow the ital diet which is a form of strict vegetarianism.
In countries such as India, you’ll find that many of the traditional dishes in their cuisine are made without meat or dairy, and they’re certainly not lacking in taste or flavor. Although it’s recently become more mainstream, the exclusion of meat from your diet is clearly a practice that’s been around for a while.
You might assume that by being vegetarian or vegan, you’re automatically following a healthier diet. There are more vegetables, less fatty meats, and as we’ve briefly touched on, a long history of other people following the same diet without mass reported health issues, which would back you up in thinking this.
However, while there are plenty of known health benefits to going meat-free, you’ll still have to make the active choice to eat healthily and to incorporate all the nutrients you need into your diet. After all, provided they were cooked in non-meat-contaminated oil *groans from every meat eater in the room* fries are vegan, too!
If you’re new to plant-based eating, then you may not necessarily know how to ensure you’re getting a well-balanced diet. It can be tricky to know when you’re overdoing it with one thing, and not getting enough of something else, so this article is here to help. Make sure you check out https://thekitchencommunity.org/vegan-food/ too!
Even if you’re not a full-time vegan or vegetarian, ‘flexitarian’ is becoming more and more popular these days.
Maybe this article will provide inspiration for your next ‘meatless Monday’ meal, or it could help give you a better idea of what to cook for your non-meat-eating friend or relative when they next come over for dinner.
Whatever your preferred eating habits, by the end of this article you’ll know a lot more about how to eat healthily when you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
What Can You Eat?
For those who don’t already know, a vegetarian diet is typically one which doesn’t involve meat, poultry, or fish. It’s not a hard definition, and many people choose to class themselves under this umbrella even though technically they’re following a variation of vegetarianism.
For example, some people avoid eggs or dairy, whereas others will eat fish but not meat or poultry, although the official label for this would be a pescatarian diet.
Veganism is where you eliminate all animals and animal by-products from your diet, including dairy, eggs, and - although this last one is sometimes contested - honey.
Those at the more extreme end of the vegan-scale would argue that veganism is more of a lifestyle than a diet, and that if you still incorporate animal products into your life such as leather or non-cruelty-free makeup you’re merely plant-based.
That’s right, so you might want to double-check that your favorite beer doesn’t use the fish bladder derivative isinglass in its manufacturing process.
What Should You Eat?
When making the change from a meat-filled to a meatless diet, many people make the mistake of thinking they can just eliminate the meat elements from their favorite meals.
This can be a great way to transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but if you don’t learn to replace the nutrients that you’re no longer getting from meat then you might end up with deficiencies.
A well-balanced diet should include the following:
Leafy greens such as watercress or spinach contain high amounts of iron, and other greens like broccoli, asparagus, and green beans are all excellent foods to regularly include in your diet. It doesn’t just stop at green though.
Try to incorporate a range of colors into your diet, including tomatoes, capsicum peppers, carrots, eggplant, and whatever else you can think of. Vegetables can also be high in vitamin C which can help you absorb some of the other nutrients your meal contains.
While too much sugar is bad for you, the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit make up part of a healthy diet. You know what they say - an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but you should also mix it up and try berries, bananas, oranges, and melons so you’re getting a range of vitamins and nutrients.
It’s recommended that you include at least 5 different types of fruits and vegetables per day.
Try to stick to the whole grain variety as this contains more fiber. Other grains that are great to include in a healthy diet are quinoa, barley, and buckwheat, which are perfect to add to soups.
Brown rice can be the foundation of a number of dishes, and oats are a great breakfast boost.
Lentils, chickpeas, black beans are all great for lowering blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate. Add them to chili and you’ll never go back to minced meat again.
Nuts and seeds:
There’s such a huge variety of nuts and seeds that we couldn’t possibly name them all, but a few good suggestions include walnuts, cashews, or peanuts, and hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Nuts can be used in baking or stir-fries for a delicious, healthy crunch, whereas seeds can be used to top your morning porridge or yogurt.
It might sound like an oxymoron, but certain fats are healthy and should be a part of your diet. We don’t know where they got such a bad rep to begin with! Best consumed in moderation? Yes. But to be vilified?
Nope, we’re not here for it. Healthy fats include oils like coconut or olive, avocados, and even dark chocolate.
(Non-) dairy products:
Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk… you can make milk out of pretty much anything these days, so there’s plenty of alternatives to choose from if you’re ditching the dairy. This also included non-dairy spreads (low fat is better), egg replacements, or dairy-free yogurts.
Iron is essential for brain function, the immune system, and helping transport oxygen around the body. It’s also one of the easiest nutrients to let slide when you switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, as it’s naturally found in red meats such as steak.
It’s a known fact that those following a meat-free diet have lower iron stores, so it’s particularly important to get some good sources of iron in your diet. This includes pulses, leafy vegetables, wholemeal bread, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds.
We’ve been told from an early age that calcium makes our bones big and strong, but it also keeps your teeth, muscles functions, and nerves healthy, too. Vegetarians can get lots of their calcium from dairy products such as cheese, yogurts, and cow’s milk, but vegans would argue that we don’t need to grow our bones as big as that of a baby cow.
Non-dairy alternatives include fortified white bread, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, dairy-free milk, and leafy greens such as kale and rocket.
B-12 is a slightly trickier one, as it’s typically only found naturally in animal products. This isn’t so bad for vegetarians as you can get B-12 from some dairy products and eggs, but vegans tend to struggle more with consuming enough of this vitamin to avoid being deficient.
If you’re raising your young children on a vegan diet, then B-12 is particularly important for their development. It can be found in vitamin B-12 fortified yeast extract, commonly referred to as ‘nooch’, fortified breakfast cereals, or fortified dairy-free milk and spreads.
As you can see, it’s not something that naturally occurs in many plant-based foods, and many people choose to boost their intake by taking supplementary vitamin B-12 tablets. This is actually recommended by the Vegan Society, but if you’re unsure then feel free to consult your doctor.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
By cutting fish out of your diet, you’re losing an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s important to make sure you replace this within your meals. These essential acids aid in lowering heart disease, as well as encouraging healthy visual and brain development.
Didn’t you ever have sardines in the morning for ‘brain food’ before an upcoming test? Luckily, it’s found in high quantities in certain seeds, including flax and chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and oils such as flaxseed and rapeseed oil.
Sources of Protein
It’s the one question all vegans and vegetarians dread - “but if you don’t eat meat, how do you get enough protein?”
While it might cause you to roll an eye when you’re met with this query for the hundredth time after telling someone about your dietary preferences, it’s actually a reasonable enough question to ask. Protein is less commonly found in plant foods, Or at least, not ‘complete’ proteins, anyway.
This is where all nine of the essential amino acids are present, although a good example is soy products which are high in protein.
Quinoa is another great source of protein, although the debate over how to correctly pronounce it is enough to put anyone off eating this versatile grain. Keen-wa? Quin-oh-ah? Well, what we do know is that you should make it a part of your meat-free diet.
Pulses and legumes are high in protein and is easily thrown into stews, casseroles, or chilis for an easy boost. Eggs are another way to incorporate protein into your diet if you’re not adhering to the stricter vegan rules, in fact, some people eat hard-boiled eggs by themself purely for that protein hit.
Asian cultures have been taking advantage of the many benefits of tofu for years, but for some reason, it’s yet to take off in quite the same way in the Western parts of the world. It’s absolutely packed full of protein, and it’s incredibly versatile so you can use it in a number of dishes.
Enjoy it fried, baked, or scrambled like you’d have your eggs in the morning. Our top tip? Don’t be stingy with the spices and herbs. One of the great things about tofu is how well it absorbs and takes on other flavors. Marinade it overnight for the tastiest results!
If you do find that you’re struggling to include enough protein in your diet through food alone, you can also supplement your intake with protein powders by adding them into smoothies and shakes, or by mixing them into yogurt.
Should You Fake It?
Probably the second most annoying question vegans have to answer is - “Well if you don’t want to eat meat, why do you want to have food that looks and tastes like meat?”
Gone are the days of trawling around town trying to find a supermarket that actually sells meat substitutes. Up until around 5 years ago, that was the reality for most vegans, but these days you can walk into pretty much any store and you’ll be sure to find not just one, but several alternatives to meat!
And it’s not just vegan companies producing it either, as even non-plant based companies are making an effort to keep up with the demand for fake meat.
The majority of vegetarian or vegan meat substitutes are naturally much lower in fat and cholesterol due to being made with ingredients such as soy products, legumes, and vegetables. However, it is possible to overdo it with fake meat substitutes.
For example, products such as Quorn include an ingredient called mycoprotein, which can cause an upset stomach and result in symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
While it can be a great idea to incorporate these substitutes into our diet, especially fussier eaters who find the transition from meat to non-meat more difficult, they shouldn’t be included as a part of every meal.
Try swapping meat-free mince for lentils in a bolognese, or use tofu, seitan, tempeh, and other foods that play the same role as meat, without the processed ingredients that are found in substitutes.
It’s important to remember that certain cooking methods yield unhealthier results than others. Vegetables are great for you, but if you coat them in batter and deep fry them then you can’t exactly call them healthy.
The good news is, this logic can be flipped, and some of the more indulgent foods you enjoy can be made much healthier by adjusting the cooking method. For example, if you’re having fries with your meal, you could bake them instead of frying them.
However, while it’s important to eat healthily on the whole and to make sure that you’re getting enough of each food group, it’s also important to remember to treat yourself once in a while.
Life is about balance, and luckily there’s a whole new world of vegan junk food that’s been developing over the last 2 or 3 years that has changed the game. Remember though, all in moderation.
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