There are many reasons people decide to become vegetarian, whether it be personal preference, ethical motivations, environmental concerns, religion or other reasons.
You'll find that a well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy, taste great and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
Interested in learning more about vegetarian eating? Looking for ideas to go meatless?
Registered dietitian nutritionist, Vandana Sheth, discusses quick, simple and delicious plant-based meal ideas for the whole family to enjoy.
Melanie Cole (Host): There are many reasons that people decide to become a vegetarian—personal preference, ethical motivations, environmental concerns, religion. A lot of reasons people decide to become a vegetarian, but it may not be as difficult as you might think. My guest is registered dietitian/nutritionist, Vandana Sheth. Vandana, welcome to the show. Tell us about what are the different types of vegetarian, because people hear about all these different types. Explain the different types to us.
Vandana Sheth (Guest): Sure. There are so many different types of vegetarian diets. Basically, vegetarians who consume plant-based food as well as dairy products like milk are considered lacto vegetarians. You have those that include egg products, and they are considered lacto-ovo vegetarians. Individuals or people who consume strictly plant-based food or animal products are considered vegans. Of course, there are different people who might have an occasional vegetarian meal or they may pick, and choose when they have animal-based products, and sometimes the term “flexitarian” has been used for people like that.
Melanie: Well, I’ve even heard of people that consider themselves vegetarians to a degree, but then they, as you say, they’ll eat dairy and eggs, but even occasionally they’ll eat fish. It really is kind of a personal preference. Tell us how you become a vegetarian. What would you say is the first step?
Vandana: The first step is recognizing that really a plant-based diet or even having vegetarian options is not that foreign. We often have plant-based foods in our diet, naturally. For example, if you have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, right there it’s a vegetarian option. If you think about your breakfast, if you have cereal or oatmeal with some nuts and seeds and either milk or a dairy alternative, it’s another vegetarian option. It’s fairly simple to do this, but recognizing how to go about it so that it’s healthy is key.
Melanie: How do we go about it so that it’s healthy and making sure to get our proteins in?
Vandana: Sure. The first thing is if you think about the USDA visual icon, the My Plate visual that’s out in the market now, think of the plate where you have half your plate filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. One-fourth of it is filled with your whole grains or carbohydrates, such as brown rice, quinoa, bread, tortillas, and one-fourth is filled with your lean protein. Now, if you are going plant-based, simply switch out that animal-based protein for plant-based options, such as beans, lentil, tofu, nuts, seeds, et cetera, and right there you’ve made that a plant-based meal.
Melanie: It’s not really as difficult and it’s about being creative really, isn’t it, Vandana? Because you have to try and see where those replacements are. What do you think of things that replace a meat-type product looking just like it, like MorningStar Farms or Boca crumbled beef, using those in tacos? Do you think that’s the way to go or you should really replace it with beans and things where you’re not trying to actually look like you are eating meat?
Vandana: Well, it depends on where you’re starting from. From my clients who -- this is a whole new way of living or trying a plant-based food. That might be an easy transition. For example, if they went to a barbecue or a potluck dinner where they are serving hotdogs and hamburgers, then having a veggie burger or some kind of plant-based dog would be an easy option. But really, ideally you want to enjoy plant-based proteins the way they are, so get it naturally from beans and lentils because you’re getting not only the protein, but you’re getting the fiber, adding spices and herbs, making it flavorful.
Melanie: Give us your favorite recipe, your favorite vegetarian recipe, something that our listeners can cook right now tonight.
Vandana: Okay, a real quick recipe would be brown rice, stir-fried vegetables in olive oil, garlic, and ginger. Add in some tofu or beans, and right there you have a quick, simple, healthy meal.
Melanie: Wow! That is quick and simple. I myself love beans and rice and black beans with cilantro and lime. You just absolutely can’t beat that. There are so many vegetarian foods, so many ways to eat. Give us another one of your favorites. Give us a breakfast that we can eat that’s healthy and vegetarian.
Vandana: Okay, sure. One of my favorite hot breakfasts in the cold months is having hot quinoa. We often think of oatmeal as a hot breakfast option, but I cook up a batch of quinoa in the weekend and just scoop some out, warm it up, add some either plant-based beverage or add some dairy, cinnamon, chopped nuts, and dried fruit, and right there it’s a delicious, warm breakfast.
Melanie: What are your favorite proteins? Do you like nuts? Do you like legumes? How can we get the protein, and are there any nutrients that you feel vegetarians tend to miss out on?
Vandana: As Americans, we often think if you cook plant-based, you might not meet your protein needs. Really, it’s not that difficult. Protein needs can easily be met on a vegetarian diet. Some excellent sources are legumes, lentils, beans, peas, tofu, edamame, having nuts and seeds, and all the misconception was that you needed to combine foods to get all your nutritional value, and that’s not so. You could have herbs at one meal and you could have a protein-based meal at another time, and your body is capable of blending it and getting it right.
Melanie: What about iron?
Vandana: I’m sorry. Exactly. Iron is another key nutrient that you might wonder if you get enough of if you’re a vegetarian. Some key sources are green leafy vegetables, tofu, tempeh, blackstrap molasses. Something else to think about on a vegetarian diet is the iron may not be absorbed as effectively as if it comes from meat products. So combine that with a vitamin C rich environment. For example, if you are having a spinach salad, toss in some tomatoes, red bell peppers which are high in vitamin C. Your body will absorb almost six times more iron from that spinach.
Melanie: What about being a vegan? Because it seems that if you tell somebody you’re a vegan, then they may look at you differently or say, “Oh, this person isn’t willing to try all those things.” Tell us why someone would be a vegan versus, say, a lacto-ovo vegetarian.
Vandana: Sure. Again, some of the same reasons apply. If you were doing it for health reasons, for environmental reasons, if you’re doing it for religion or for ethical motivation, regardless of your reason, if you’re a vegan, something to think about is that you’re strictly focusing on plant-based food. You would be able to meet all your nutritional needs on this vegan diet. However, you do need some planning in place, and one key nutrient to think about is vitamin B12, because that mainly comes from animal products. If you’re on a vegan diet, you want to ensure you’re either getting it through fortified food or from a supplement that has vitamin B12.
Melanie: That’s interesting. You want to make sure that you’re getting your B12 if you’re a vegan because the foods may not contain them. What do you say to vegetarians that say, “Should I be supplementing with a multivitamin or a little extra folic acid or iron supplements?” Do you generally tell them, or are these found in nature pretty easily?
Vandana: Well, you can find most of the nutrients you need in nature. If you are following a vegan diet, then I will ensure that you are making sure your food labels, that you’re reading them carefully. For example, if you’re having a plant-based dairy alternative, such as soya milk or almond milk, just make sure it’s fortified with vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12, and right there you’re getting those nutrients that you might otherwise miss.
Melanie: What about for the whole family? Is it okay for kids to eat vegetarian?
Vandana: Absolutely. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a vegetarian diet, including a vegan diet, can be healthy for people at all stages of life, from infancy all the way through senior citizens. The key is, again, making sure you’re getting a wide variety, it’s well planned, and you’re getting the right portions of different nutrients throughout the day.
Melanie: In the last 30 seconds, if you would for us, Vandana, please give us your best advice on becoming a vegetarian.
Vandana: Be creative. Recognize that a plant-based diet can be healthy. It can actually have lots of positive health benefits. But making sure that you are balancing it out eating a variety of food, colorful fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, and again, be creative.
Melanie: Great information. Thank you so much for listening to Eat Right Radio from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This is Melanie Cole. Thanks for listening. Stay well.