When I reached my breaking point as a carnivore 22 years ago while politely forcing down a supremely rich bowl of smoked trout and fish roe soup… I didn’t exactly approach vegetarian eating in a healthy way.
I just knew I wanted to be in charge of what I consumed. I wanted to enjoy the taste and even more importantly I wanted to be ok with the ethics behind how my food arrived on my plate. Todays show isn’t going to dig in with the ethical side of vegetarian eating. It’s simply a step by step guide on how to be vegetarian healthily.
I’ll share both what NOT to do and of course what to do to so far as:
Healthy Vegetarian Eating.
Let’s first give the hugely subjective term Healthy Vegetarian Eating a little context.
I’m going to call Healthy the food that let’s you look, feel and function as you would most love to look, feel and function. Long term and sustainably. To get even more specific let’s also ensure this approach to being vegetarian healthily means you do not fall short of any macronutrients or any of the vital macronutrients that can often be lacking in a vegetarian diet. I will get more specific so far as macro and micronutrients as we progress. Onwards…
Step one: Focus first on natural One Ingredient Foods.
As a new vego initially some of my go 2 foods were delicious baked products like blueberry muffins, cheese scones and my cereal of choice… crunchy nut cornflakes.
Even if YOU start at a slightly less sugary and obviously processed place than I did there are a lot of trickster foods on the market trying to convince the vegetarian eater of their benefits.
Most notably any meat substitutes.
You’ve seen them before I’m sure. The vego sausages and burger patties. The pretend bacon. The vege mince.
Although I didn’t ever get into food that tried to look or taste like meat I did fall hard for TOFU. I’ll cover that in step 3.
Step two: Build your meals around a rainbow of Fibrous Veg.
The quickest, easiest, cheapest and initially yummiest way to build a vego meal is with pasta. Or noodles. Or rice. Or toast. Once I escaped my addiction to muffins, scones and cereal I launched into serious pasta and bread mode!
It absolutely wasn’t a recipe for either a fit, lean body or abundant, reliable energy.
As a vego you’ve got to get less fussy and more adventurous with your veg. You’ll find that once you exclude an entire food group from your eating repertoire especially if you ditch fish as well as meat then you’re going to need to give some of those previously unloved veg a second chance.
The good thing is, with age our tastebuds mature and you’ll likely find that some of your previous most hated veg are actually fine. It often depends on how you cook them. You’ll also find that because as suggested in step one you’re focusing on natural one ingredient foods your tastebuds are no longer dulled by the fake flavours, fats and salt that makes cheap processed food so appealing.
Two micronutrients to work into step two are CALCIUM and IRON.
Recommended quantities of calcium daily vary dependent on your age and life stage. Here’s a link to a more thorough break down however a general target for a woman age 19-50 (including if pregnant or breastfeeding) is 1,000 milligrams. For men 19-70 it’s 1,000mg. For women 50-70 and adolescents it’s 1,300mg.
- Collard Greens (1 cup contains over 350 mg)
- Kale (1 cup contains 180 mg)
- Broccoli (1 cup contains 95 mg)
and then a couple of non-fibrous friends…
- Almond milk (1 cup of 250 mils contains 188 mg)
- Tahini (1 tablespoon contains 65 mg)
The iron available in meat and fish is more easily absorbed and subsequently iron targets for non fish eating vego’s and vegan is 1.8 times greater than for the carnivore or regular fish eater. It’s also worth noting vitamin C can aid in iron absorption and compounds in tea and coffee can inhibit absorption.
For females over 19 the recommended quantities of iron daily is 18mg and males only 8mg. Here are my top 5 vegan sources:
- Raw Spinach 1 cup contains is only 1.2mg OR (1 cup chopped and boiled it’s a lot of green love and up to 6.4mg)
- Swiss chard (1 cup chopped and boiled contains 4mg)
- Collard Greens (1 cup chopped and boiled contains 2.2mg)
- Spirulina (a 3gm serve which is just over 1/2 a teaspoon contains 1.33mg)
and then my fav fat…
- Cashews (60 grams contains 3mg)
At this point you’ll see it’s going to take a lot a veg to hit 18mg let alone 18mg times 1.8. My personal take on supplementation is it’s individual and although my body works well without it, yours may not. It’s certainly something to discuss with a doctor you trust rather than just trying on your own.
Step three: Add Lean Protein.
I covered this step in depth in the #336 show: 5 Ways To Eat Less Meat Without Sacrificing Protein. Also in show #093: Being Vegetarian And Getting Lean. And in #237: 3 High Protein Vego Salads.
The keys are:
First, to remember step one, focus on natural one ingredient foods.
So, that means avoiding a heavy reliance on tofu. Or any soy. Or any processed food pretending to be meat.
As I’ve shared previously I used to guzzle a liter of soy milk and a couple of 100 grams of tofu a day.
That is until I discovered that stress, toxins & even TOFU in our day to day life mimic the effect of estrogen in our bodies & can lead to extra fat storage in estrogen sensitive areas (the hips & thighs for ladies – the belly for men!)
Super veggies, otherwise known as cruciferous veggies have the ability to balance out your estrogen levels again. Your cruciferous friends are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale AND Yes, brussel sprouts!
Second, don’t expect the old school (boring!) lean protein + 3 veg formula to work here.
Especially if you don’t eat fish. For a start you’re likely going to be acquiring your protein from a variety of sources rather than one big hunk of steak or chicken.
You’ll get a little bit in your fibrous veg from step two and then the protein you add now (my top 5 soon) and then perhaps you’ll get a bit more with the fat you add in step four and finally you might also up your protein anti thanks to an extra side or meal finisher (that’s Kate talk for dessert!)… like protein pancakes. Here are my personal top 5 protein sources along with an explanation as to why I chose to bend a couple of my rules to include them:
- Fish. That’s a no-brainer right? However if you don’t eat fish you can still healthily get enough protein. I ate either Salmon, Snapper or Barramundi every day for a year when I first introduced fish to my diet again. Like many things that was a little extreme. I got squeamish. Now I’m back to fish once or twice a month max. Number’s 2-4 are my daily Go2’s…
- Free Range Organic Eggs. I do struggle with this. Even though the chooks are free range, daily I consider: Should I be vegan? So far, the fact that eggs are such a hugely high quality one ingredient fuel has won out. That may change though.
- Raw Vegan Brown Rice Protein Powder. Again, I break my one ingredient rule. Ease and versatility and cost effectiveness are 3 of the reasons why. Also, to be brutally honest – because I’m an emotional eater – and I can make some pretty delicious high protein, low carb pancakes and shakes with this powder.
- Hemp seeds. (one tablespoon contains 5.3grams of protein).
- Lentils. (one cooked cup has 18 grams of protein and also20 grams of carbs). I don’t eat them regularly because of the high carb content however I still rate them as a high quality vego source of protein… their protein:carb ratio is certainly favourable to the often favoured chickpeas and quinoa.
The micronutrient to work into step three is VITAMIN B12.
Recommended quantities of B12 daily range from 4-7MICRO-grams. My fav vego sources are eggs and also nutritional yeast which just makes everything taste better!
One large egg contains about 20% of your recommended daily B12 intake. A generous (and I tend to roll with heaped!) tablespoon of nutritional yeast that has been fortified with B12 can contain 100% of your recommended daily B12 intake… and it also belongs in this step because it gives you and extra 3 grams of protein too (and that’s for a flat tablespoon!)
Step four: Finish with Good Fat.
For my first few skinny fat vego years I was scared of fat. In fact I pretty much banned it from my diet. As a result my energy, skin, general health and JOY IN LIFE were lacking.
As I eventually learned, including good fat is the easy part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. You’ve cut excessive amounts of saturated fat from animal products – not that saturated fat deserves the hideous rap it got when I was a youngster however I still don’t believe you need to go out of your way to add it excessively. You’ve evicted the super nasty trans fat that used to sneak into those addictive processed foods we eliminated in step one.
Now it’s time to add in delicious, nutritious, satiating Good Fat. The fats that help you burn fat!
So far as one ingredient fats I don’t believe there are absolute rights or wrongs… they do my nature have a high caloric density so personally I’m going to choose the ones I LOVE most. I tried adding flaxseed oil to my salads or snacking on walnuts and to me neither compare to coconut or olive oil or cashews! Here are several suggestions:
- Coconut oil. Is a healthy source of saturated fat made up of medium chain fatty acids, which do not get stored in the body as fat. Itʼs also very stable under high heat.
- Avocado. The main source of this fruits fat is Oleic acid, which helps with fat absorption and also helps to lower the risk for developing heart disease. Additionally avocado can help keep inflammation in your body under control.
- Nuts. Cashew – Almonds – Pistachio’s or whateveryour fav is as they all have value. Yes nuts also have a high Caloric Density meaning they pack a high amount of energy (calories!) into a small space, however they are also satiating AND they also help stabilize your blood sugar levels by slowing the rate at which carbs are broken down and released into the blood stream.
- Eggs. A powerhouse of goodness. Vitamins that are present include: A, D, E, B1 (which helps properly release energy from carbohydrates), B2 (which helps release energy from protein and fat), B6 (which promotes the metabolism of protein), and B12 (known to be an essential vitamin in the formation of nerve fibers and blood cells). In addition, the minerals present in eggs include Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Iodine, and Selenium. Beyond all that (!) they are super versatile… and when youʼre cutting out all the fake, and processed fat from your diet the saturated fat in a couple of whole eggs a day is not going to do you any harm.
Two nutrients to work into step four are macronutrient OMEGA 3 fatty acid and micronutrient ZINC.
If you don’t eat fish you can still hit the recommended omega 3 quantity which ranges from 500 – 1000mg daily by consuming any combo of the following:
- Hemp seeds. (1 tablespoon contains 1000 mg)
- Chia seeds. (1 tablespoon contains 2400 mg)
- Flaxseeds. (1 tablespoon contains 2300 mg)
- Walnuts. (30 grams contains 2700 mg)
and then a non-fatty friend that unlike walnuts has the right ratio of omega 3 to 6 fatty acids…
- Spinach. (one cup cooked has 160 mg)
To meet the recommended zinc quantity of 8mg daily for women and 11mg daily for men here are some suggestions:
- Cashews. (1/4 cup of my fav dry roasted contains 1.9 mg)
- Sunflower seeds. (1/4 cup roasted contains 1.7 mg)
and then a few less fatty friends…
- Lentils. (1/2 cup cooked contains 1.3 mg)
- Broccoli. (1 cup cooked contains 0.8 mg)
- Miso. (1 tablespoon contains 0.4 mg)
WOW, so this has turned into a bit of a mega podcast! Almost more science’y than my usual style… so here are my thoughts.
I’m going to finish up for today however my goal with this and every show I devote to healthy eating is to make it simple if not always 100% easy.
Never complicated. So to redeem myself and reclaim simple I think I’ll devote a follow up show to put the steps, the macronutrients (so that’s Carbs, Proteins and Fat) and the vital micronutrients that can often be lacking in a vegetarian diet into a day of meals. Pretty much my day of meals in fact.
To get actionable today, I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you don’t eat meat – is there a step? A macronutrient? A micronutrient that you struggle to work into your regular eating routine?
If so I can focus on it in the follow-up show. Please let me know via the comments below.
If you liked this you’ll also like: 5 Common Mistakes Vegetarians Make For Fat Loss.
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