What makes for a healthy vegetarian diet?

Thursday, October 1, 2009 14:26
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Happy World Vegetarian Day, which kicks off Vegetarian Awareness Month–a time when non-vegetarians are encouraged to explore the benefits of vegetarianism, whether for a meal, a day, a month, or for life.  

Vegetarianism appeals to people for a variety of reasons–concerns about health, budget, animal welfare, and environmental impact are a few of the more common. And for those exploring a vegetarian lifestyle, there's both good news and bad news.

The good news about vegetarianism: It's easier than you might think

The challenges or hazards of a vegetarian diet have been exaggerated in the past.  Contrary to what you may have heard, most vegetarians don't need to worry about getting enough protein or about combining certain foods to ensure "complete" protein.

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, if you are eating enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight, you are getting enough amino acids and protein.

It's also easy to get enough calcium and iron from vegetable foods.  Vitamin B12 is perhaps the primary concern–and only for strict vegans. Those who eat no animal foods of any kind are advised to take a B12 supplement.  Visit the Vegetarian Resource Group for more resources on vegetarian nutrition.

The bad news isn't all that bad

The one cautionary note about vegetarianism is that simply eliminating meat does not automatically produce a healthy diet.  You still need to pay attention to the quality and quantity of what you eat. A healthy vegetarian diet focuses on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole unprocessed grains, and limits processed and refined sugars and empty calories. (Believe me, there's no shortage of vegetarian and vegan junk food out there.)

Here are guidelines on putting together a variety of healthy vegetarian diets:

Vegetarian Food Pyramid

Vegan Food Pyramid

Tips for Low-Carb Vegetarians

If you're looking for some meal ideas, check out the great vegetarian recipes collection on our sister site Epicurious.com,  or use their advanced search function to find recipes that fit your preferences.

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