What To EatTwo predominant problems I see befall young vegetarians are either an excessive reliance on one or two particular foods or an excessive consumption of processed foods. One of the wonderful aspects of a vegetarian diet is in fact its potential for variety: “There are basically 5 different kinds of meat and poultry, but 40 to 50 kinds of commonly eaten vegetables, 24 kinds of peas, beans, and lentils, 20 fruits, 12 nuts, and 9 grains… Though your average American restaurant would give you no clue to this fact.” (Lappe) The more variety in ones diet, the more nutrients one is consuming, and ideally one should be consuming only fresh, unprocessed foods. If you are going to eat a prepackaged food, and I don’t deny this is sometimes a necessity (few people have time to bake their own bread or crackers, for example) read the labels and try to avoid chemicals (long names you can’t pronounce or mysterious abbreviations like BHT or MSG), high fructose corn syrup, or refined grains: look for 100% whole wheat and understand that the word “wheat” without the word “whole” means “white.” “Enriched” is another misleading term meaning that the natural nutrients have been removed from the grain and a less complete number of synthetic nutrients have been put back in.
The grain thing is really tricky and really important because so many grains are refined in commercial American foods and the nutritional value lost when a grain is refined is huge. “Now that our breadstuffs are refined, no food rich in the B vitamins is ordinarily eaten daily. In fact, there are only four good sources of these vitamins: liver, brewer’s yeast, wheat germ [what is removed from the wheat to make white bread including breads like French and Semolina], and rice polish [what is removed from brown rice to make white rice]… The B vitamins appear to be equally needed by every cell in the body.” (Davis) Thus, a grain-rich vegetarian diet can be quite healthful if the grains consumed are whole and thus contain valuable vitamins and nutrients, additionally the high fiber content in these whole grains aid digestion and in my opinion, dispel the myth that one must “reduce carbs” to be at an optimum weight– if the statement were “reduce REFINED carbs including sugar” it would be more accurate. If you eat sweets aside from fruits, at least go for sweets which do not have tons of chemicals and additives and keep them to a minimum. One of the good things for me about becoming a vegan was that it reduced how often I was able to say, “oh I’ll just grab this sugary danish for breakfast.” Since most pastries contain eggs and butter, I found myself making healthier choices.
Good choices include whole wheat, brown or wild rice, bulgur wheat, bran, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, spelt, oats, whole wheat pasta, rye, and foods such as bread, cereal and crackers made up of these grains, along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes such as beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil. Which brings us to topic number two…
What makes a food a protein is the amino acids it contains. There are 8 essential amino acids which must be present in a food we eat for protein for it to be considered “complete,” because those particular amino acids are ones our bodies cannot make themselves. Most plant foods do not contain all 8 amino acids, but they contain some, and the trick for vegetarians and especially for vegans is to combine foods which balance out each other’s protein deficiencies, aka “complementary proteins.” Without going into deep scientific detail (which “Diet for a Small Planet” does if the reader wants a deeper look), here is a simple and easy-to-remember chart:
Whole grain + legume= complete protein (i.e. rice and beans or a peanut butter sandwich)
Legume + seeds= complete protein (i.e. hummus if you make it yourself using chickpeas and tahini which is from sesame seeds, commercial hummus has so little tahini its protein content is nil, or a trail mix with peanuts and sunflower seeds, or a salad with beans and sunflower or pumpkin seeds)
Whole grain+ milk product= complete protein (milk and cheese actually are not complete proteins on their own)
Egg= complete protein on its own
So, even if you are a strict vegan it is possible to eat a variety of protein-rich meals provided you remember the grain-legume and legume-seed paradigm and try to include it in each meal and snack.
There are a few sources of single vegetable proteins containing all 8 essential amino acids, but their chemical balance of these amino acids is slightly different in proportions to animal proteins, nevertheless they should be considered. They are: soy (more on soy in a moment), quinoa, buckwheat (kasha), amaranth, and hemp (that I know of– might be a few more out there.) Quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth can all be used in place of rice for an extra boost of protein, and I use hemp milk as a milk substitute.
Regarding soy, while it is indeed high in protein and has been found to have many other positive effects on health, I feel I have to put a disclaimer on soy A. because it is often eaten in excess, especially by vegetarians/vegans, and B. because there is a lot of controversy around whether or not excessive soy consumption can be harmful. So about soy, I will say this: I think a good rule of thumb if you want to eat soy is to use it as your protein source no more than a few times a week (to ensure your diet has variety), and to stick to basic soy foods such as tofu and tempeh and avoid the wide variety of highly processed soy “meat substitutes” which are out there, except as an occasional treat. These processed soy foods are often also extremely high in sodium.
A quick note about nuts: the peanut is a legume, not a nut, and so falls fits into the legume+grain or seed paradigm. Other nuts are fine to eat and do contain some protein, but not an adequate amount to be focused on as a primary protein source (same deal with almond or cashew butter, almond milk, etc.) I did however find that when I went from vegetarian to vegan I lost a lot of weight due to eliminating milkfat, and eating nuts, which are rich in healthy fats, was helpful in maintaining my weight and energy level. It is important to have adequate fat in one’s diet for proper absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
Supplements and Brands to Consider
Vitamin B-12 is difficult to obtain whether you are a vegetarian or not, unless you happen to frequently eat liver, so a good supplement to increase your B-12 is either nutritional yeast (a powdered supplement which I put in smoothies and soups and don’t mind the taste of—kind of nutty) or brewer’s yeast (which I think tastes terrible but I know people who like it.) An iron deficiency is another potential concern for vegans, and iron can be easy increased by using blackstrap molasses as a sweetener (I put a bit on my breakfast cereal and use it in baking) and by eating dried fruits, particularly dates and dried apricots. If you are eating dairy then your calcium intake is probably fine, but if you aren’t I have found that most milk substitutes such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, or hemp milk have been enriched with both calcium and Vitamin D so that their quantities match that of milk (don’t forget that almond and rice milk are NOT protein sources, but can be drunk anyway as a source of vitamins.)
Ezekiel brand bread and cereal, as these products contain combinations of grains and legumes rather than just grains, making them complete proteins, and have no additives. For vegans looking for a butter substitute the Earth Balance brand does NOT contain hydrogenated oils (which are TERRIBLE FOR YOU—don’t eat margarine!!) and is all natural, you can even sometimes get a soy-free variety. For cooking I generally just use olive oil in place of animal fats. If you want to try hemp milk Pacific Natural Foods brand has the highest protein content. All these things can be obtained in a lot of health food stores and probably Whole Foods, and often a small health food store will be willing to special-order something if you ask them.
I hope this information can be helpful to vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike, and will inspire YOU to do more research on your food choices. A simple Wikipedia search can be extremely informative, and I have cited my two sources for this paper below. Both authors have written numerous books which are easy, enjoyable reads, and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in food and nutrition.
Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit by Adele Davis (Published 1954)
Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe (Published 1971)
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (Published 2007) is another book which may be of interest although it is less specific about food choices and less geared towards vegetarians