We have observed that meatless eating can deliver a lot of health benefits, without sacrificing flavor. Also, vegetarians typically have diets richer in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and unsaturated fat, so it’s no surprise that studies have found them to have a lower risk of heart disease. And even going meatless just a couple days a week can lower your risk of diabetes by 28%. With meat or not, having a balanced diet is key to proper nutrition, so include these veggie foods in your diet to get critical nutrients your body needs.
#1. Beans (Key Nutrient: Protein)
“Where will I get my proteins from?” Most Americans get way more protein — our bodies’ “building blocks” — than we need and that we can even use, so this actually is not a primary nutrition concern. (Most people need between 0.36 and 0.45 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which works out to be about 60 grams for a 150-pound person.)
There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein, including beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, whole grains, tofu and tempeh. With the exception of soyfoods, all these foods offer “incomplete protein,” meaning they have some, but not all, of the essential amino acids we need — the compounds that make up protein. Eating a wide variety of foods ensures that you get all the amino acids, but you don’t need to get all the amino acids at each meal. Eggs and dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt) are other vegetarian options that deliver complete protein.
#2. Dark Leafy Greens (Key Nutrient: Iron)
Iron is an important mineral — it shuttles oxygen from our lungs to our cells — yet iron deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in the world! In the U.S., it affects 2% of adult men and 9 to 20% of women.
Although iron is most easily absorbed from animal foods, you can also get it from plant foods. You just need to eat greater quantities of it. Iron is found in these plant-based foods: dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), beans and raisins, as well as blackstrap molasses. You can also get iron from fortified breads and cereals (read the Nutrition Facts label to see if a product has iron). Pairing these plant sources of iron with a food rich in vitamin C (such as tomatoes, citrus fruit and potatoes) can help you better absorb iron.
#3. Fortified Soymilk (Key Nutrient: Vitamin B12)
Vitamin B12 helps your body turn food into energy. Since vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal foods, vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs probably will get enough B12 from these foods, but if you’re going vegan or don’t eat dairy or eggs often, make sure to get some B12-fortified foods in your diet.
Many nondairy milk alternatives have B12 added, as do certain cereals — just check the Nutrition Facts label if you’re not sure if your cereal or milk alternative contains B12.
#4. Whole Grains (Key Nutrient: Zinc)
Zinc is vital for growth and development at all life stages and also supports immune function (men need 11 mg/day and women need 8 mg/day). Whole grains (about 1.3 mg), beans (1.6 mg), yogurt (2 mg), Shiitake mushrooms (0.85 mg), sesame seeds (2 mg per ounce) and cereal all deliver some zinc (all amounts per cup, except where noted).
#5. Walnuts (Key Nutrient: Omega-3 fats)
If you don’t eat seafood you have to make an extra effort to get DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fats that have been praised for their importance in eye and brain development as well as heart health. Although our bodies can create DHA and EPA from ALA, another omega-3 fat found in canola oil, soy, flaxseed, and walnuts, we only make small amounts. To cover your bases, look for an algae-based DHA supplement.
#6. Iodized salt (Key Nutrient: Iodine)
Not to encourage people to fill their plate with salty junk food; however, Iodine (essential to thyroid health) is another nutrient that’s found in seafood that can be lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets — one study found that 80% of vegans and 25% of vegetarians didn’t get enough. There’s an easy fix, though. Instead of using sea salt, which does not have iodine added to it, opt for iodized salt when cooking. Seaweed is another natural source of iodine, so try making it a part of your diet.
So, try to go meatless, even if it’s a day in a week, and feel the difference in the nutrition quotient and the freshness of the meal and your mood.