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Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan
An Option to Consider

by Alissa Heizler-Mendoza, RD, CDN, CDE, and Megha Desai, MD

The road to health is paved with vegetables, fruits, beans, rice and grains. — Polly Strand

In the United States, vegetarianism has often been considered something of a fad or an aspect of an “alternative” lifestyle. In recent years, however, this way of eating has become more mainstream. Today, up to 10% of Americans call themselves vegetarians, although they don’t all define the word the same way. “Vegans” avoid all foods derived from animals and eat only plant-based foods. “Lacto-vegetarians” avoid meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but include dairy products in their diets along with plant foods. “Lacto-ovo vegetarians” eat eggs in addition to dairy products and plant foods. And “flexitarians” (sometimes called “semi-vegetarians”) follow a primarily plant-based diet but occasionally eat small amounts of meat, poultry, or fish.

The reasons people adopt a vegetarian eating style are varied and may include concern for animals and/or the environment, personal health, and culture or religion.

Following a vegetarian meal plan does appear to have health benefits. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians are less likely than meat eaters to be overweight or obese or to have Type 2 diabetes. They also tend to have lower blood cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, and they have lower rates of death from heart disease and prostate or colon cancer.

The features of a vegetarian meal plan that may reduce the risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals (chemical compounds found in plants that may be beneficial to human health).

In many ways, the characteristics of a well-planned vegetarian meal plan are similar to the recommendations for meal planning for managing diabetes. That being the case, a vegetarian meal plan may be a good choice for individuals with diabetes.

Getting adequate nutrition
No matter what type of meal plan you choose follow, the most important thing is to ensure that it meets your nutrition needs. A vegetarian meal plan that relies heavily on white bread and cheese, for example, is unlikely to provide the same benefits as a plan that is based on dried beans, lentils, soy products, whole grains, and a variety of vegetables. When adopting a plant-based meal plan, therefore, there is more to consider than just avoiding meat.

Although there is no single best nutrition plan for people with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) offers some recommendations for the proportions of protein, fat, and carbohydrate to include in one’s meal plan. The ADA’s recommendations are based on research studies that have shown these proportions to provide adequate nutrition while not increasing the risk of diabetes complications. However, the ADA’s guidelines caution that each person’s meal plan should be individualized according to his personal characteristics, including any complications he may already have.

Your body needs protein for healthy skin, bones, muscles, and organs. Protein intake should be about 10% to 20% of your total caloric intake. It was once thought that plant foods had to be eaten in specific combinations at the same meal to provide all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) necessary for good health. It is now known that consistently eating a varied meal plan of nutritious plant foods can easily meet those amino acid requirements.

Good vegan sources of protein include soybeans and soy products such as tofu, tempeh, textured soy protein, soy milk, and some veggie burgers; dried beans and legumes such as lentils; whole grains (with some being much higher in protein than others); seitan (wheat gluten); and nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters. (See “Cooking With Tofu” to learn more about this soy protein.)

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Also in this article:
Cooking With Tofu
Vegetarian Protein Sources



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