Vegetarian Awareness Month

By Amy Merwarth, RD, CDN

October is National Vegetarian Awareness Month!  A well planned vegetarian diet can meet the needs of all ages of people.  When people talk about a vegetarian diet they typically talk about a diet that is free of meat, poultry or fish.  But there are different kinds of vegetarian diets. Take a look at the chart below for the various types of vegetarianism. 

Type of Vegetarian Diet

Excludes

Includes

Lacto-Vegetarian

Meat, Fish, Poultry and Egg Containing Products

Dairy Products

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian

Meat, Fish and Poultry Containing Products

Dairy Products and Eggs

Ovo-Vegetarian

Meat, Poultry, Seafood and Dairy Containing Products

Eggs

Vegan

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Eggs and Dairy Containing Products

The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, just like any other diet, is to consume a variety of foods.  No single food can provide all the nutrients our body needs.  The more restrictive and limited your diet is, the more challenging it can be to get all the nutrients you need.  Vegetarians should pay attention to the following nutrients.  Look at the chart below to see which key nutrients are important, what their function is and what foods to find them in. 

Nutrient

Function

Sources

Calcium

Builds and maintains strong teeth and bones.

Milk and dairy products are the highest.  It can also be found in dark green vegetables such as turnip and collard greens, kale and broccoli when eaten in sufficient quantities.  You can also get calcium fortified products such as juices, cereal, soy milk, soy yogurt and tofu.

Iodine

Helps regulate metabolism, growth and function of key organs.

¼ Teaspoon of Iodized Salt.

Iron

Important component of red blood cells. 

Dried beans and peas, chickpeas, baked beans, lentils, soybeans, tofu, pumpkin seeds, black strap molasses, enriched cereals, whole grain products, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit (raisins, figs).  Iron isn’t easily absorbed from plant sources.  Therefore, the recommended amount of iron from vegetarians is almost double that of non-vegetarians.  To help better absorb iron it should be taken with foods high in Vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus fruits, juices, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli.  

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Important for heart health.

Canola oil, soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed and soybeans are good sources.  However, because the conversion of plant based omega 3 to essential fatty acid in humans is inefficient, you may want to consider fortified products and/or supplements. 

Protein

Maintains healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs.

Eggs and dairy products are good sources.  Plant based sources include soy products, tofu, beans, peanut butter, meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains. 

Vitamin B-12

Produces red blood cells to help prevent anemia. 

This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products, so it can be difficult to get enough B12 on a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 deficiency may go undetected in people who eat a vegan diet because their diet is high in folate, which may mask a B12 deficiency.  Therefore, it is important for vegans to consider vitamin supplements, vitamin enriched cereals and fortified soy products. 

Vitamin D

Important for bone health.

Vitamin D is added to cow’s milk, some brands of soy and rice milk and some cereals and margarines.  If you don’t eat enough fortified foods and have limited sun exposure, you may need a Vitamin D supplement (one derived from plants).

Zinc

Essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in cell division and formation of proteins.

Zinc is not easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal products.  Cheese is a good option if you eat dairy products.  Plant sources include whole grains, soy products, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and wheat germ. 

If you are not following a vegetarian diet but are thinking of trying it, here are some tips and ideas to help you get started.  Ramp Up: each week increase the number of meatless meals you already enjoy.  Learn to Substitute: take favorite recipes and try them without meat.  You may be surprised to find many dishes only require a few simple substitutions.  Branch Out: browse the internet for vegetarian menus, buy or borrow vegetarian cookbooks, check out ethnic restaurants to sample new vegetarian cuisines.  The more variety you add to your vegetarian diet, the more likely you will be able to meet your nutritional needs. 

Hearty Vegetable Lasagna

Ingredients:
1 (16 ounce) package lasagna noodles                         
2 (26 ounce) jars pasta sauce
1 (15 ounce) container part-  skim ricotta cheese
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced                                              
1 tsp dried basil
¾ cup chopped green bell pepper                                            
¾ cup chopped onion                                                                
3 cloves garlic, minced                                                 
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp vegetable oil                                                                 
2 eggs
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Directions:

  1.  Cook the lasagna noodles in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, or until al dente.  Rinse with cold water, and drain.
  2. In a large saucepan, cook and stir mushrooms, green peppers, onion and garlic in oil.  Stir in pasta sauce and basil; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes.
  3. Mix together ricotta, 2 cups mozzarella cheese and eggs.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Spread 1 cup tomato sauce into the bottom of a greased 9×13 inch baking dish.  Layer ½ each, lasagna noodles, ricotta mix, sauce and parmesan cheese.  Repeat layering, and top with remaining 2 cups mozzarella cheese.
  5. Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes.  Let stand 15 minutes before serving. 

Sources:  Mayoclinic.com, Teenshealth.org, Colorado State University Extension, Allrecipes.com.

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