While vegetarianism has only gained real ground in the U.S. relatively recently, vegetarian foods continue to be a major source of nutrition for much of the world population. As science progresses nutrition experts and dieticians alike are looking to plant-based foods like fruit, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts to provide a complete protein profile while also keeping cholesterol and saturated fat content to a minimum. The growing awareness of the considerable benefits of a meat-free diet has also led to an increase in the availability of vegan meat products that incorporate healthful plant-based ingredients. In addition to providing all needed protein, modern research suggests that vegetarian diets can help to lower the incidence of heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and may even help many individuals to lose weight more effectively.
What Are the Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet?
According to the American Dietetic Association (recently renamed the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), a vegetarian-based diet can help to reduce health risks for a variety of common conditions, including:
- Heart Disease
- Colorectal, breast, and ovarian cancers
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Of course, even vegetarian diets can end up being high in saturated and trans fats–or low on essential nutrients–so it is important to pay close attention to the actual nutritional content on the package label.
Complete Vegetarian Nutrition
When it comes to a healthy human diet variety is absolutely key to ensuring a good spread of low-fat calories and high nutrient content. The five nutritional categories that vegetarians should pay especial attention to include:
- Protein: good sources of proteins for vegetarian diets include whole grains, beans, lentils, tofu and soy-based products, low-fat dairy, seeds, nuts, eggs and peas.
- Vitamin D: vitamin D is essential for facilitating the body’s ability to absorb and use calcium. Since very few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D, vegetarians can help to supplement their intake by looking for fortified milk or soy products.
- Calcium: it is generally recommended that adults consume at least 1000mg of calcium daily. In addition to low-fat and fat-free dairy items, those looking for non-animal based healthy sources of calcium might consider choosing calcium-rich vegetables, fruits, and legumes like kale, mustard, collard and turnip greens, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, sunflower seeds, beans, and dried figs
- Iron: in addition to iron-fortified cereals and breads, vegetarians should to include dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, as well as supplemental foods like prune juice, molasses, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and soybean nuts in order to ensure sufficient dietary iron.
- Vitamin B-12: while vegetarians who eat dairy and egg products typically get plenty of B-12, vegans may want to supplement their die with fortified soy milks or broad-spectrum mineral and multivitamin supplements.
Modern Meatless Products Make an Easy Dietary Quick Fix
Research suggests that getting a complete protein profile from a wholly vegetarian diet can be greatly aided by soy-based vegan meat products. In addition to whole grains and vegetable ingredients, meat substitutes typically contain high amounts of refined soybean protein–the only common source of plant-based protein that contains all the essential amino acids needed for good nutrition–making it easy to reduce the intake of animal protein through simple substitution.