“You’re a vegetarian – maybe I should become one too. Does following a vegetarian diet guarantee good health? “
I get this question and statement often in my practice – the long and short answer is no.
More and more people are choosing to follow a vegetarian eating style due to ethical reasons, taste preferences, nutrition concerns, etc. Myself, I follow a primarily plant-based diet, but still include dairy, eggs and occasionally fish in my diet.
Okay, so we know that plants are healthy. But does this mean meat is not healthy?
There is an abundant amount of research on the health benefits of vegetarian diets. For example, Australian researchers found that diets rich in animal protein were four times more likely to die of cancer than those who ate a low-to-moderate amount. By just dropping down to a lower daily quantity of meat, cheese, and eggs, and replacing them with some high-quality vegetables, nuts, and grains, your body will thank you — but only if you make sure you’re fulfilling your dietary needs with the right stuff.
When you cut a group of foods out of your diet, you are putting yourself at risk for nutrient deficiencies. For example, vegetarians need to pay extra attention to their intake of iron, b12, protein, vitamin D and calcium, to name a few. A plant-based diet must be well-planned in order to have a nutritional advantage over other eating patterns.
Long and short, neither omnivores or herbivores should badger the other for their personal eating habits. Both should make sure they have a balanced variety of nutrient-rich proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. A carnivorous flexitarian diet full of bountiful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is completely possible to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle.
If you are an omnivore, why don’t you impress your favourite vegetarian by making a few meatless swaps in your diet, on occasion? Let me help guide you through a few easy swaps, equipped with some of my favourite recipes.
Your Guide to Easy Meatless Swaps
This is a staple in more plant-based diets, but can easily be enjoyed by omnivores as well. Derived from soy, a 4 ounce serving of tofu is high in protein (18g), low in carbs (5g) and is available in different degrees of firmness so it lends itself well to many dishes. Additionally, tofu provides an excellent amount of calcium (77%), trace minerals such as phosphorous, selenium, copper and manganese and even some omega fatty acids (whfood). If you are looking for something to make desserts with or to blend into a smoothie for added protein, soft or silken tofu is best. For dishes that use eggs or ground meat, medium or firm tofu can be scrambled and mimic the texture of animal protein such that a meat-eater may not even notice the difference. Firm tofu can also be cubed and cooked into stir-fries or simply seared whole and eaten on its own like a steak or chicken breast would be.
Tempeh and Seitan
Often unknown to meat eaters, these two forms of plant proteins are high in protein and very versatile. Tempeh is a product made from fermenting soybeans and is than often formed into a block that can be cooked and eaten alone or incorporated into dishes that usually contain animal products that have been ground or chopped. Due to the fermentation process, tempeh is a more digestible form of soy protein and in 4 ounces contains high amounts of protein (20g) and fiber (12g) (whfoods, n.d). Additionally, tempeh is also high in a number of micronutrients including trace minerals such as manganese and copper as well at Vitamin B2. Seitan is derived from wheat protein and, similar to tempeh, can lend itself well to many cooking preparations due to its “meaty” texture (Nussinow, 1996). From a macronutrient perspective, seitan has a pretty solid profile as it contains about 21g of protein, 4g of carbohydrates and only 2g of fat in 3 ounces (Urban Vegan, 2016). From a micronutrient side, it falls a bit short of tempeh but does contain a relatively good amount of iron, about 6-8%, and sodium. The one drawback of seitan is that those with gluten intolerances or sensitivities cannot consume it as it is formulated from vital wheat gluten.
Commonly used by vegetarians and vegans, beans, peas, peanuts and lentils contain high amounts of protein, fiber and micronutrients (LaBarbera, 2012). The specific amounts of each vary in the members of the legume family but we will give a brief breakdown of some of the all-star qualities of each. For a single cup of cooked lentils, you get 18g of protein for less than 1g of fat while also getting 15g of fiber, 90% of our daily needs of folate, 37% of your fiber and over 50% of the trace minerals phosphorous and copper (whfoods, n.d). Beans offer similar amounts of the trace minerals while also providing a moderate amount of protein (about 15g), 60% of your fiber and 20% of iron in a single cup serving (whfoods, n.d.). As a final mention, although peanuts are often thought as snack foods, they are actually loaded with many nutrients! In a quarter of a cup, peanuts provide 9g of protein and more than 20% of your daily needs of folate, manganese, copper, vitamin E and phosphorous. (whfoods, nd.).
Due to the variety of flavours, shapes and textures, these can be substituted in just about every type of dish. You can use beans in salads, stews or chilli’s and lentils in place of ground meat. Legumes can also be broken down and made into meatless burger patties, meatballs and meatloaf.
Other easy options that don’t require much planning or cooking include mushrooms as they are a more meaty-tasting vegetable and therefore can be a good substitution for steaks, burgers and sauces. Finally, protein-rich grains such as quinoa, kamut and amaranth can be added to vegetable based dishes to provide a bit more substance and nutrients including fiber, B vitamins and iron.
So, the next time you are worrying about what to serve when entertaining a variety of dietary lifestyles, don’t stress! All you have to do is make one dish and simply swap out the animal protein for the plant based eaters. Simple no? Alternatively, you could do something new and try a meatless meal for yourself.
Research conducted by Chelsea Cross, BASc (c) and Nicole Osinga, BASc, MAN, RD.