A Healthy Vegetarian Diet

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Eating a healthy vegetarian diet is easier than you might think, and the food choices are endless!

NOTE: Since MOTHER EARTH NEWS published this article in 1985, a significant amount of new research on the subject of health and vegetarianism has taken place. Before making any large dietary changes, we recommend taking a look at more recent articles and research about vegetarian diets and also consulting your family physician.

A person has only to browse through the cookbook section in any local bookstore to conclude that vegetarianism can no longer be considered a fad, as it was only 10 years ago. With the fitness phenomenon reaching an all-time peak, more and more people are searching for a more healthful diet, and for many, that means cutting back on meat, or even eliminating it from their table. Furthermore, vegetarianism — be it full- or part-time — has also received the nod from the American Dietetic Association, the National Cancer Institute and the American Heart Association.

But just how practical is a healthy vegetarian diet, anyhow? As more and more folks join the ranks of “rabbit-food munchers,” it becomes essential to dispel the myth that vegetarian food consists largely of carrots and lettuce. The majority of people who eschew meat altogether fall into the lacto-ovo vegetarian slot: They eat a variety of grains, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs and all dairy products. A little more strict are the lacto vegetarians, who eliminate eggs from the above list. The real hard-liners are the vegans, or “pure” vegetarians, who consume no animal products at all.

Nutritional Concerns for Vegetarians

Unfortunately, a good many folks who might otherwise dive wholeheartedly into a low- or no-meat diet (for reasons of health, ecology, economics, ethics or whatever) hesitate out of fear that they won’t be able to provide their bodies with the necessary vitamins and minerals on a vegetarian regimen. And some people — particularly those with hearty appetites — quail before the question of what to eat in place of the familiar meat, fish and poultry. (The popular image of an anemic wisp of a person munching on sprouts and nuts dies hard!)

However, these worries can be laid to rest. The basic vegetarian diet is a totally healthful way of eating, one that offers the body a full array of vitamins and minerals and ample caloric energy to keep the human machine humming along.

And you have only to glance through the pages of vegetarian cookbooks to be assured that you’ll eat handsomely on nonmeat fare. Vegetarian cookery is a rich and varied cuisine, full of marvelous dishes that suggest a whole new style of, and reverence for, eating. Most folks who make the transition to vegetarianism find that, rather than feeling limited by their new diet, they’re actually overwhelmed with the spectrum of tasty meal possibilities.

Vegetarian Basics

Back in elementary school, we all memorized the famous Four Food Groups, representing those categories said to be necessary for a well-balanced diet. Basically, that was sound advice, and it needs only slight modification to be applicable to a meatless diet. From Laurel’s Kitchen by Lauren Robertson, here’s an updated and revised version of the Four Food Groups, which offers a varied and safe way to nourish the body without including meat: 

  1. vegetables (yellow and leafy green)
  2. fruits
  3. dairy products and eggs
  4. grains, legumes, nuts and seeds 

Choosing three or more servings every day from each of these divisions will ensure the lacto-ovo vegetarian a supremely healthy diet. For a vegan regime, in which the dairy food/egg category is not used, it’s necessary to combine plant foods carefully in order to ensure adequate protein intake.

Complimentary Proteins

Protein is probably the biggest bugaboo faced by the potential or neophyte vegetarian. But not to worry. Getting one’s adequate share of daily protein is no problem for the conscientious vegetarian, even for the vegan. In fact, ensuring that you consume enough protein every day is now generally considered to be even easier than it was 10 years ago.

But first, why is protein so important? Aside from water, protein is the most plentiful substance in the human body and is vitally important for building muscles, skin, hair, nails and internal organs. Protein — a complex of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and usually sulfur — is also an important ingredient in hemoglobin (the substance that carries oxygen in the blood) and in antibodies, as well as in the production of enzyme and hormones.

We can’t, however, obtain protein directly from the food we eat. Rather, we must collect the 22 amino acids that serve as its “building blocks,” so that the body can manufacture its own protein supply. All but eight of those 22 acids are present in the body, and those eight are therefore labeled “essential” (since they have to come from the food we eat). The essential amino acids are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. (Children require an additional one, histidine.) Unless all eight are present in the system at the same time, no synthesis of protein can take place, and herein lies the major difference between a meat-centered and a plant-based diet. Animal foods already contain all the necessary building blocks for protein: They are “complete” proteins. Plant foods, however, with the notable exception of the soybean, are “incomplete” proteins — low in one or more of the eight essentials. It’s obvious, then, that anyone who eliminates meat from his or her menu must make certain that the plant foods are augmented in some way to make complete proteins. And that’s done through the principle of protein complementarity, first brought into the limelight in this country with the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s now familiar Diet for a Small Planet.

The process of protein pairing involves serving together foods that have complementary amino acid makeups. That is, each partner’s strengths make up for the other’s weaknesses. For example, grains generally contain very little isoleucine and lysine, so their obvious protein “buddies” would be legumes, which are moderately high in isoleucine and very high in lysine. On the other hand, legumes are low in tryptophan and methionine, giving them an amino acid profile that’s the opposite of that of most nuts and seeds. Dairy products are especially high in the very amino acids lacking in cereal grains, providing another beneficial pairing. Based on these principles of complementarity, three important combinations of foods should be kept in mind (and used every day!) by anyone practicing a meatless diet:

  • Grains + Legumes
  • Legumes + Nuts or Seeds
  • Dairy Products + Grains 

The lesson of protein complementarity, then, is a required course for any vegetarian cook (in fact, it usually occupies several pages in the front of most modern meatless cookbooks), but the good news is that it’s easier to master than you might expect. That’s because protein complementarity has served for centuries as the basis of many traditional native cuisines around the world and is even present in some of our common American dishes.

For example, beans and corn (served in the form of tortillas with beans, or bean-filled enchiladas) are a South American staple, black beans and Cuban rice are a plat national all over the Caribbean, and lentils and rice — in countless variations — are served daily in India. The Orientals, too, have long known about protein complementarity; they combine soybeans (usually in the form of curd, or tofu) with rice throughout China, Japan and the rest of Asia. Indonesians commonly serve tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) with their rice. In the Mediterranean, native peoples feast on specialties combining garbanzo beans and sesame seeds. Closer to home, the American Indians taught the early colonists to eat succotash (a tasty mixture of lima beans and corn), and our modern standards include cereal-and-milk breakfasts, peanut butter or cheese sandwiches for lunch and dinners of pizza (wheat crust and cheese topping) or macaroni and cheese.

So you can see that ensuring a healthy daily allowance of protein is really no problem for the vegetarian. Yet the questions remain: How much protein do we really need, and what proportions are necessary to successfully balance the amino acids in complementary foods? Debatable issues, both, but there is a margin of error within which a non-meat eater can feel perfectly safe. The amount of protein a person requires is determined by his or her body size, age, sex and levels of activity and stress. The general rule of thumb — as specified by the National Research Council’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) — is that we should receive 10-15 percent of our total energy needs from protein, or about 0.424 grams per pound of body weight each day. Thus a 150-pound person would need 63.6 grams of protein daily.

It’s widely suspected that the government’s RDA’s for some nutrients — most notably protein — are at least slightly exaggerated. Therefore, some nutritionists advise that it’s wise not to become too alarmed over the matter of protein intake in a vegetarian diet. Instead of anxiously trying to compute your daily grams, Frances Lappé suggests that you learn to “read” your own body and notice whether it’s carrying on its normal maintenance functions properly. How do your hair and fingernails look? Do minor wounds and sores heal quickly? Do you have enough energy to carry you through a normal day? If so, you’re most likely receiving plenty of protein. During times of stress or under special physical conditions, however, the body’s protein “appetite” increases (as metabolic processes accelerate), so the daily requirement is upped accordingly. A pregnant woman, for example, needs 30 extra grams of protein a day, while a lactating mother requires 20 extra grams. Babies and children under four years of age, according to the RDA of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, need 28 grams of protein daily.

Vegetarian Vitamins and Minerals

What about vitamins and minerals, though? Can the vegetarian diet substitute adequately for the important nutrients found in animal products? This often raised question tends to overlook the fact that most of the vitamins and minerals Americans consume come from the very plant foods that star in a vegetarian diet! Vegetables provide us with lots of vitamin A, vitamin C, folacin, riboflavin and calcium. Fruits, of course, are nature’s storehouses of vitamin C, as well as vitamin A and natural fiber, while grains and legumes contribute a long list of nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, thiamin, niacin, vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium. Even so, several important nutrients are often mentioned as matters of concern when meat is eliminated from the diet: calcium, the B vitamins, iron and zinc. However, if the meatless diet includes dairy products, there is absolutely no danger of coming up short on those elements, and even the vegan diet can score well with just a little care and planning. In fact, one of the beauties of a vegan regime is that it helps restore the body’s normal alkaline state (meat is a very acid-forming food) and thus actually reduces the need for base minerals, such as calcium. By receiving enough sunlight (to aid calcium absorption) and eating abundantly of dark, leafy greens and soy foods, even the vegan needn’t have any calcium worries.

The only B vitamin of notable concern to vegetarians is B 12 (cyanocobalamin). Although humans need B 12 in very small amounts (the adult RDA is 3 micrograms), the vitamin is not widely available in plant foods, so the strict vegetarian must find special sources of B 12. If dairy products are not included in the diet, a person may choose to get his or her B 12 from fermented soy foods (tempeh cakes or miso paste), nutritional yeast (a powdered supplement often used to make mock cheese) or spirulina (a blue-green microalgae now available — for rather high prices — in powder or tablet form). Of course, vitamin B 12 supplement pills are also available to the vegan and usually have to be taken only once a week.

Iron is another element that’s commonly thought to be available only from flesh foods, but it is contained in plants, although in a form not as readily assimilated by the body. To ensure adequate iron intake, the vegetarian can eat lots of iron-rich foods (legumes, dark, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit and molasses), supplement these with vitamin C (from any citrus fruit) to enhance iron absorption and use cast-iron cookware.

Fruits and vegetables, it’s true, are generally poor suppliers of zinc, a trace mineral that’s vital to enzymatic metabolism and reproductive functions. However, most whole grains and legumes (both of which play prominent roles in the vegetarian diet) provide ample amounts of zinc.

Protein Pairing in the Kitchen

We’ve already explored the nutritional basis of protein complementarity; now let’s examine the practical side of the matter. In other words, how in the world do you get all those little amino acids lined up in proper pairs when you’re rushing to get dinner on the table? Just keep in mind those three basic combinations: grains with legumes, nuts or seeds with legumes, and dairy products with grains. Using those guidelines as a point of departure, you’re limited only by your culinary imagination. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

In the grains plus beans category, an easy booster is two tablespoons of crunchy soy grits (cracked, partially cooked soybeans) added to each cup of flour used in a recipe. Or try a rice-bean casserole, split pea soup served with whole wheat or rye bread, a lentil or bean curry served over rice or corn tortillas with a refried-bean topping.

For the nuts or seeds plus legumes combination, you can sprinkle sesame salt over a bean casserole, put it in a garbanzo-carrot stew or try making hummus (the Middle Eastern sandwich spread of mashed chick-peas and sesame meal). A similar Mediterranean delight is falafel, a hummus-like dough that’s shaped into balls, deep-fried and served on whole wheat pita bread.

Dairy products and grains are another happy match in the world of protein pairing and probably offer the easiest combination to work with. By simply adding 2 tablespoons of nonfat dry milk to one cup of wheat or rye flour, you’ll increase the dish’s protein quality by 45 percent! You can also rely on macaroni and cheese, cereal and milk, rice-milk pudding, cheese sandwiches, barley and yogurt soup or cheese and rice pilaf.

In addition to the three major complementary groups, other beneficial pairings include grains with nuts or seeds (whole wheat bread with tahini — sesame meal — or peanut butter), dairy products with legumes (how about a cheese sauce over cooked garbanzos?) or even grains with yeast (include a little nutritional yeast in bread dough or pancake batter, or sprinkle it on cereals and popcorn). Sesame seeds and Brazil nuts, by the way, are both high in methionine, the amino acid most lacking in dark, leafy greens, so sprinkle some over your next batch of steamed collards or kale for a taste and protein treat!

Soy Foods Reign Supreme

Surely a meatless cook’s best friend is the soybean: Humble, trustworthy and incredibly versatile, the little rotund legume is a joy to have around and to work with. Soy foods have been venerated in the cuisines of the Orient for thousands of years, but they’ve been “discovered” in Western kitchens only in the past 15 years or so, despite the fact that the United States produces two-thirds of the world’s soybeans. Containing 35 percent protein by dry weight (more than any other unprocessed plant or animal food), the soybean is a nutritious little nugget: It contains no cholesterol, almost no saturated fat, lots of calcium, phosphorus, and B vitamins and an extremely low ratio of calories to protein. In fact, the amount of usable protein contained in just one cup of cooked soybeans is equal to that in a 5-ounce steak at a cost of only 234 calories!

The whole soybean itself can be used in a multitude of ways, because its bland taste is a natural “sponge” for almost any spice, herb or dairy product. However, even when presoaked, soybeans take a long time to cook (about three hours by normal methods or 30-40 minutes in a pressure cooker), so it’s best to make a double — or even triple — batch each time and freeze the leftovers. After cooking, they can be baked whole in casseroles (they’re especially flavorful with cheese), added to soups or stuffed into peppers — or you might want to mash them and add seasonings to make soy patties, loaves, cold sandwich spreads or meatless “meatballs.”

Soy flour is another, somewhat “sneakier,” way to enjoy the solid nutritional bonus of soybeans. Simply add 2 tablespoons of soy flour to every cup of regular flour used in a recipe, and you’ll have a nice low-fat, high-protein supplement that won’t affect the dish’s taste. (Soy flour is not normally used as the sole flour in bread making, since it contains no gluten, the “elastic” that is responsible for making the dough rise.)

Ah, tofu. This lovely, nutritious soy food has long graced oriental kitchens, and now it’s migrating westward as well, fast outstripping all other soy foods in popularity. Sold most commonly in 12- or 16-ounce blocks, tofu (or soybean curd) is a creamy, low-calorie food that’s packed with protein (which is increased even further when it’s combined with rice or other grains).

Next time you’re steaming vegetables, pop a few cakes of tofu right on top and — when they’re warmed through — remove them from the pot and season them with soy sauce or tamari. You can also broil individual tofu cakes: Spread a generous layer of dark miso (fermented soybean paste that’s available in health food stores) over the surface of each one, then place under your oven’s broiler for five minutes, and you’ll have a naturally salty treat.

Tofu can also be sliced and lightly fried in oil with a breading of cornmeal (or any flour you’d prefer), nutritional yeast and salt and pepper. Use the browned tofu slices to create open-faced sandwiches (dressed with grated carrots, a sliced tomato, chopped onions, sprouts or lettuce and spicy mustard), or dunk them into your favorite fondue or dipping sauce. If the tofu is cut into long, thin sticks before frying, you can wrap the cooked morsels in sheets of paper-thin nori seaweed, moisten the edges to make a seal, and pop them into your mouth as unusual hors d’oeuvres. Or marinate your tofu in a sauce that contains tamari, vinegar and herbs, then fry as usual.

As you can see, a healthy vegetarian diet is more than possible — it’s simple and delicious!