The benefits of a vegetarian diet have been well researched and the results have been positive. The American Society of Nutrition and Dietetics announced this year that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of death from ischemic heart disease and lower your chance of having Type II diabetes or hypertension. It can also decrease levels of LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Going vegetarian is a hot topic these days and many celebrities like Kate Winslet, Paul McCartney, Tobey Maguire, and Anne Hathaway have taken vegetarian or vegan lifestyles on as their personal platform. But not everyone is drawn to a vegetarian or vegan diet and that is okay as well. Food is personal, and dietitians realize that. That’s why trends like Meatless Mondays are exciting. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. The health benefits gained from eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant proteins are still present if you eat just one meatless meal per week. That one vegetarian meal can decrease your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, and you’ll be expanding your palate to new flavors and textures.
Before jumping into the veg pool, you may have some questions. Here are answers to some of the most common concerns for vegetarians:
- How do you get enough protein? The average healthy adult needs approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. For an average 150 pound, healthy adult the protein “needs” are about 54 grams per day. Milk, cheese, yogurt, beans, nuts, whole grains, eggs, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and edamame are all sources of protein in a typical vegetarian diet. Even some of our vegetables, such as spinach, peas, broccoli, and corn, contain protein and help us meet our protein needs every day.
- But I’ve heard that soy is bad for you. Whole soy foods have been around for centuries and can be part of a very healthy diet. Whole soy foods include those that are closest to their natural state like tofu, tempeh, miso, and edamame. Processed soy foods, like soy protein isolate sometimes found in protein bars or shakes, might not have the same health benefits as whole soy foods and should be eaten only on occasion. Eating soy as part of a healthy vegetarian diet has not been shown to cause cancer, thyroid issues, or other health problems, but the research is ongoing. Check out this interesting article on soy and breast cancer risk from The American Cancer Society.
- I would love to be a vegetarian, but I just can’t give up cheese. There’s no need to! A vegetarian diet can still include dairy foods and eggs, while a vegan diet does not include any food that comes from an animal. Cheese can be part of a healthy vegetarian diet, but be careful about portion sizes and frequency because cheese is high in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Try to think of cheese as a condiment rather than a staple.
- Vegetarian meals are too expensive. It’s true that some of the processed vegetarian foods are more expensive than their meat counterparts, but it isn’t recommended to replace meat with highly processed meat substitutes all the time. Instead, look for ways to incorporate more beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains into your meals. Foods like black beans, edamame, lentils, and quinoa are great sources of protein and very cheap to buy.
- My friends and family would give me a really hard time about eating tofu. It’s normal to see some resistance from friends and family when diet changes are made. Just be patient and try not pressure anyone else into making changes they might not be ready for. If a friend or family member is interested in learning more about a vegetarian diet, try taking them to your favorite vegetarian restaurant or refer them here for more information.
Wondering where to start? It can be as simple as ordering a vegetarian sandwich at a restaurant or leaving the ground beef out of your homemade burritos. UWMC’s Plaza Café even has meatless options and celebrates “Meatless Monday” each week. Look for options like the tofu bahn mi sandwich and vegetarian pizza. If you want to get more creative at home, try substituting cooked lentils for ground meat in sloppy joes or roast vegetarian hot dogs over your campfire this summer. However you choose to do it, eating more vegetarian meals will lessen your carbon footprint, benefit your health, teach new behaviors to your friends and family, and show kindness to animals.
Emily Kelley-Brown, MPH, RD, CD is an inpatient dietitian currently transitioning from adult patients to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In her spare time, Emily enjoys riding horses, cooking, and traveling.
This post was originally published in the RD Blog. You can visit the RD Blog and see its archives if you have a UW Medicine ID.