At 19, long before I became a Registered Dietitian, I read the seminal book Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé and stopped eating all meat…red meat, fish, chicken. The information was compelling…the myriad of health benefits associated with vegetarian diets…her thesis that vegetarian diets help mitigate the negative impact that factory farming has on our environment. Today eating lower on the food chain and avoiding meat raised in feed lots makes more sense than ever.
But, at 19, I was impatient and careless. Although I was impressed and touched enough to swear off all meat, including poultry and fish, I wasn't sufficiently industrious to undertake the food combining regimen the author (then) recommended for essential amino acids from various plant sources. So I did what many people still do today when they decide to forego meat. I ate cheese. Lots of cheese. Too much cheese.
And I gained 15 pounds in about three months. I substituted cheese for meat, at every meal. And to understand the significance of this, consider that a one-ounce slice of turkey breast has about 22 calories, and a slice of cheese has about 105 calories.
What I didn't know then, but what's known now and reflected in updated versions of the book is that it's not necessary to have a full complement of plant protein at each and every meal, even every day. Eat a variety of foods, including vegetables and grains with different components of amino acids and other nutrients over a one- to two-day period, and you'll stay healthy, and possibly leaner, too.
How the Wrong Vegetarian Diet May Make You Fat
Just because it's vegetarian doesn't make it healthy. ‘Vegetarian lasagna’, for example, if loaded with cheese and oil, is high in calories and fat, too. Substituting plant protein for animal protein, if done right, means more fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals that boost immunity. There is no dietary cholesterol in plant foods, and less saturated fat. If Americans replaced all or at least most of the meat in their diet with mostly seafood, beans and tofu, they would dramatically cut their risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and various cancers such as colorectal, prostate, breast and pancreatic cancer. But if people replace meat with high fat, processed foods, they won't save themselves from any of these diseases.
Focus on Nutrition
* Protein has many important functions in the body and is essential for growth and maintenance. Meet all of your needs by eating a variety of plant-based foods. It’s not necessary to combine different plant proteins in the same meal: Include beans, nuts, nut butters, peas and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers). Dairy (low fat) and eggs are also good protein sources for lacto-ovo vegetarians.
* Iron functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the blood. Sources include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, molasses, whole wheat breads, peas and some dried fruits (dried apricots, prunes, raisins).
* Calcium is used for building bones and teeth and in maintaining bone strength. Sources include fortified breakfast cereals, soy products (tofu, soy-based beverages), calcium-fortified orange juice, and some dark green leafy vegetables (collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens). Low fat dairy for lacto vegetarians.
* Zinc is necessary for many biochemical reactions and also helps the immune system function properly. Sources include beans (white beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas), zinc-fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds. Low fat dairy for lacto vegetarians.
* Vitamin B12 is found in animal products and some fortified foods. Sources include low fat dairy products, eggs and fortified foods like breakfast cereals, soy-based beverages, veggie burgers and nutritional yeast.
Veggin' Out At Home
•Find dairy substitutes next to conventional including soymilk and yogurt, almond milk; rice milk; oat milk. Choose low-sugar varieties.
•Pasta Plus: more protein and fiber. Try Barilla Plus, made with whole-grain and legume flour, with 40% more protein and more fiber than conventional pasta. (It contains egg whites, important information for those who avoid eggs.)
•Pair Pasta: Add with legumes to boost protein and nutrition: add a drained can of chickpeas or black beans to drained pasta, add some olive oil and herbs or bottled low-fat tomato sauce for a quick meal.
•Boost nutrition and protein by adding raw or roasted nuts and seeds to casseroles, salads and cereals.
•Try vegetarian meat substitutes like veggie burgers, hot dogs and meat crumbles, textured vegetable protein (TVP).
•Experiment with tofu: firm for stir-fry dishes; silken for cream-cheese substitute and dips; tempeh, a chewy cultured soybean cake: make kabobs with vegetables.
•Bean Burgers: made with black beans or lentils.
Registered and Licensed Dietitian Susan Burke March is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Her latest project is her new eBook for convenient weight loss, The Common Cent$ Diet for Busy Girls, www.thecommoncentsdiet.com. Susan consults with individuals and companies to create personalized and practical weight management solutions. Email her at Susan@SusanBurkeMarch.com.