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Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan
An Option to Consider

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

Lacto-vegetarians can also include low-fat or fat-free milk products and low-fat cheeses as protein sources, and lacto-ovo vegetarians can additionally include egg whites.

Protein sources with a higher fat content, such as nuts, nut butters, full-fat dairy products, and whole eggs, should be eaten in moderation to avoid excessive calorie and fat intake. (Click here for a table offering a comparative look at various vegetarian protein sources.)

Generally, your total fat intake should make up less than 30% of your total calories consumed, with saturated fat limited to less than 7% of the total calories, trans fat minimized as much as possible, and a total cholesterol intake of no more than 200–300 mg per day. Limiting total fat intake can help a person attain and maintain a healthy weight, while limiting saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol can help to keep the blood level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol low.

Dairy products (except for fat-free products) and eggs are sources of saturated fat and cholesterol, but they can be replaced by such alternatives as low-fat or fat-free dairy products, egg whites, and egg substitutes, which contain less saturated fat and cholesterol, or none at all.

Plant-based foods such as canola and olive oils, avocados, seeds, and nuts are good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats are considered healthier fats because substituting them for saturated fat may lead to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fat may additionally raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol level in the blood.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a particular form of polyunsaturated fat that can help prevent heart attack and stroke when consumed in adequate amounts (and as a high enough percentage of total fat in the diet). While vegetarian meal plans tend to be rich in other essential fatty acids, they can be low in omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, it is important for vegetarians to consume foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids on a daily basis. Flexitarians may find this easiest, since high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon. For those who prefer plant foods, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu and other forms of soybeans, walnuts, and supplements made from microalgae are sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Soy milks and cereals fortified with omega-3 fatty acids are also available.

Like most Americans, vegetarians may tend to overconsume refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta, and many crackers, breakfast cereals, and breads. Carbohydrate foods made from whole grains are better choices for a number of reasons, including a higher fiber content, higher nutrient content, and a tendency to be digested more slowly, which can help normalize blood glucose levels after meals.

Most mainstream grocery stores sell such whole-grain products as brown rice, bulgur (cracked wheat), kasha (toasted buckwheat groats), oatmeal, pearled barley, popcorn, quinoa, wild rice, and whole-grain breads, breakfast cereals, crackers, and pastas. Health-food or natural-foods stores may additionally sell amaranth, millet, steel-cut oats, whole wheat berries, and others.

The other types of foods that should make up the bulk of carbohydrate in a vegetarian meal plan include vegetables of all types, dried beans and legumes, and fruit. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt also contribute carbohydrate in meal plans that include them. Less-nutritious sources of carbohydrate, such as sweets, should account for a smaller percentage of calories and carbohydrate.

Vegetarians who have diabetes need to be aware of which foods contain carbohydrate and to pay attention to how different types of carbohydrate-containing foods (and various portion sizes of those foods) affect their blood glucose level. Many people with diabetes find that keeping the amount of carbohydrate they eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner consistent from one day to the next helps to keep their blood glucose level more consistent, as well. People who use insulin also need to learn to match their insulin doses with their carbohydrate intake. This may require some trial and error when incorporating new foods such as whole grains and dried legumes into your meal plan.

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Also in this article:
Cooking With Tofu
Vegetarian Protein Sources



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