Balanced Vegetarian Diet - The Basics

What is a balanced vegetarian diet? Can I get all the nutrients my body needs eating vegetarian? Where do I begin? It all seems so complicated.

Here are some uncomplicated answers.

The most important thing to remember when you're wanting to eat a balanced vegetarian diet is to choose a variety of foods every day.

There are books written about nutrition, but these are the basics to get you started.

You'll want to keep reading and experimenting with new foods until you understand what's right to eat to make up a balanced vegetarian diet for your body.

Two important considerations are types of foods and the nutrients in each one. You'll also want to know the amounts of each food dietitians consider a portion size.

Types of foods:

1. Vegetables

Yes, I'm listing vegetables first, but you'll get to eat other great foods, too.

You'll need 3-5 servings every day. Most vegetables are measured in 1/2 cup serving sizes. Salad greens portions are one cup. Most vegetable juices are 1/2 cup.

Most Americans are used to super-sized meals. A half cup seems more like a taste than a serving! So drink a tall glass full. It's infinitely better for your body than a soda.

Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, protein, phytochemicals, and fiber.

Eat some of your veggies raw. Cook some of them,too. Carrots, celery, and onions can be eaten either way. Carrot sticks or carrot soup. Sliced celery or celery soup. Onions on lots of things from salads and sandwiches to omelettes and stew and casseroles.

Be sure to try new veggies. Look through cookbooks or surf the internet for different, interesting choices.

At the grocery store, try the natural or organic foods section for fresh vegetables you may never have heard of. Do you have any idea how many types of squash you'll find?

Keep in mind the importance of variety every day in the foods you choose for your balanced vegetarian diet.

2. Fruits

It's recommended you eat 2-4 servings of fruit every day. Keep reading for comments on serving sizes.

Fruits contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fiber. Try to eat the fruit rather than drink the juice. Juices often contain increased concentration of sugars. (see glycemic index)

Serving sizes are a little tricky. You can see the difference between a slice of watermelon and a fresh pear. Obviously all fruits don't come naturally in a serving size.

One large apple may be two servings and a medium apple just one. Bananas come in all sizes, too. What's a serving? For bananas, it's about eight inches in length.

What about canned pears or other fruits? Well, fortunately, the label on the can lists the serving size for you. Often it's one half cup.

But what about applesauce? And how do you measure fruits that go in baked goods?

Don't worry about that now. We're just doing the basics. You can fine tune as you keep learning. Just remember that variety is necessary for a balanced vegetarian diet - or any diet! Some people "go flexitarian" for a while to insure adequate nutrients.

3. Beans and legumes

Include unsalted raw nuts and seeds. Eggs as well as soy and textured proteins are also included in this grouping.

Two to three daily servings are recommended. A portion size for cooked beans is 1/2 cup. One egg is a serving.

Nuts are counted by type in some references. A general rule is about 2 tablespoons or 10-15 nuts, eg almonds or walnuts. Peanut butter is 2 tablespoons.

Nutrients these foods supply are protein, fats, and multiple vitamins and minerals. Fiber is an additional benefit.

Please don't get hung up on precise measurements at this point. Just remember that a half a cup of nuts of any type is supersized and not recommended. The fat content is way too high unless you're seriously trying to gain weight.

Textured protein and tofu portions are marked on the package, often in ounces similar to meat portion sizes.

Remember to vary your choices to maintain a balanced vegetarian diet.

4. Grains

This is a large group and includes many options. Breads, cereals, rice, pasta and some very nutritious choices you may never have heard of such as quinoa, (pronounced keen-wah)

Eat 6-11 servings every day with the number dependent on overall calories you want to eat.

Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.Brown rice has the additional benefit of a lower glycemic index.

Refined grains are processed in a way that many nutrients are removed. Most nutrients are then added back. Some of the whole grain benefits are lost and not restored.

Recommended portions of most breads is one slice with whole grain the preferred type. Cooked rice and pasta serving size is 1/2 cup. Hot cereal is also 1/2 cup, but many cold breakfast cereals are 2/3 to one cup portions. Once again, labels are helpful as serving size of more dense cereals may be just 1/4 cup.

Once again, remember to try new types of food to maintain the variety that creates a well balanced vegetarian diet.

5. Milk and dairy products

May or may not include milk! Lacto-ovo vegetarians do drink milk although many have switched to soy, rice, or nut milk-type drinks to reduce their intake of animal fats.

Dairy products include cheese, ice cream, puddings and so on.

The daily recommended allowance in this category is two to three servings. Those would be measured in cups, 8 ounces, a day of the liquids.

Cheeses are very concentrated forms and are often high in fat. Ice cream, too, may have a very high fat content. Portions of these foods are quite small.

Cheese is 1 ounce or one slice. Ice cream is 1/2 cup per serving.

Not all dietitians knowledgeable in vegan vs vegetarian vs flexitarian diets believe dairy is required for a balanced vegetarian diet.

Some vegetarian diet plans don't even include this food group. Calcium and protein are available from many plant sources.

6. The extras.

These are sugars, fats, and oils.

Table sugar is not a nutrient for our bodies. It's included in many of our favorite foods though. I suggest you go ahead and enjoy your chocolate or cheesecake or whatever sugary food you love. Just keep in mind the 80/20 rule and don't over do. Your goal is a balanced vegetarian diet.

However, our bodies do require a variety of fats and oils, but in small amounts. Most are present in the foods we eat, nuts, cheese, avocado, milk, eggs, and tofu, for example, and we don't need to add more beyond what may be required for cooking or for dressing our salad.

There you have it. Now you know the basics to begin your balanced vegetarian diet. Remember, there's still lots to learn. What a pleasure it is to bring nutritious foods to feed our bodies. Some even say we feed our souls when we care for our physical form.

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