You hear this all the time, right? Eating a vegetarian diet is better for your health! The problem with that blanket statement is that it’s simply not true. At least, not for all vegetarians.
Eliminating meat from your diet is a great way to lower your intake of saturated fats and reduce the risk for a number of scary diseases. But if you’re replacing animal foods with daily bowls of white pasta, breads, pizza and peanut butter sandwiches, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.
A healthy vegetarian diet goes beyond just eliminating meat and poultry; it’s about choosing healthier alternatives and filling your plate with a variety of beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It can take a bit of planning at first, but it won’t take long before eating healthy becomes a natural part of your day.
Here are 4 tips to get you started.
1. Eat mostly whole foods
Whole foods are single ingredient foods that have not been processed and do not contain preservatives or additives. For example:
- Apples are a whole food; apple sauce is not.
- Olives are a whole food; olive oil is not.
- A potato is a whole food; a potato chip is not.
- Peanuts are a whole food; (most store-bought) peanut butter is not.
- Brown rice is a whole food; white rice is not. (White rice used to be brown rice, before its bran and hull were stripped away to give it a longer shelf life.)
Skip the boxes of flavored rice and canned vegetables. Instead, try preparing a few of your own meals each week with fresh whole foods. Make it easier by prepping a few days’ worth of staples twice a week that you can store in the fridge for 2 to 3 days and warm up, as needed.
Choose 1 or 2 types of whole grains, 1 or 2 types of beans and a few of your favorite in-season veggies. Mix and match them differently each day for variety.
If prepping fresh foods doesn’t fit the schedule, call in an extra large order of brown rice or quinoa from a healthy restaurant on your way home from the office and stock up on canned beans and pre-cut frozen veggies (preferably not canned veggies) from the supermarket.
2. Eat a variety of beans and nuts
Beans and nuts are a primary source of vegetarian protein. They are also high in fiber, iron, B-vitamins and other key vitamins and minerals. And they make a tasty addition to any meal.
Start each morning by sprinkling hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds or chia seeds into your smoothie.
You’ll also want to eat at least one cup of beans or legumes each day in place of meat. Soybeans have the highest protein with 29g per cup and contain all the essential amino acids, but be sure your soy says organic and/or “non-GMO”. Lentils (18g per cup) are also packed with protein and are incredibly fast and easy to cook. Most other beans contain roughly 15g per cup.
Also, in place of croutons, try drizzling almonds, hazel nuts, or walnuts over any soup, salad or grain for a delicious crunch. I do this all the time – it’s delish!
3. Eat or drink dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens are incredibly nutritious, containing a high source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, vitamins A, B, C, E and K.
Toss some kale or spinach into your morning smoothie, or grab a cold-pressed green juice on your way to the office. (If you’re new to juicing, you might want to add some apple or lemon until your taste buds adjust to all-greens.)
For lunch or dinner, either blanch or steam your greens and top them with a whole grain and your favorite veggies. Great candidates include kale, collards, watercress, spinach, dandelion greens, beet greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens.
4. Choose healthier snacks
Seasonal fruits are a great snack. Blend a variety of fruits and pour them into ice cube trays to make healthy ice pops in summer. You can also freeze grapes for a candy-like treat.
Mix raw or roasted seeds and nuts with raisins and goji berries for a tasty trail mix. And try rice balls, rice cakes or homemade popcorn (not microwaved) as a healthier alternative to packaged chips.
Skip the white sugar and packaged candy. Satisfy a sweet tooth with snacks made with real maple syrup, honey, coconut palm sugar, or fruit.
Good to know
- A healthy vegetarian diet is naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol, so the risk of obesity and heart disease is naturally lower.
- A healthy vegetarian diet has also been linked to lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Several studies link animal protein with breast, prostate and colorectal cancers, and have found that vegetarians (particularly vegans) were at a lower risk for these cancers.
- Since vegetarians do not eat meat, the risk of consuming unnecessary hormones and antibiotics from factory-farmed meats is reduced. This risk is completely eliminated for vegans, who also avoid eggs and dairy products.
- Healthy vegetarian diets tend to be more alkaline by nature. An alkaline diet keeps the immune system strong and can gift you with more energy.
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