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8 Tips to Maintain a Balanced Diet as a Vegetarian or Vegan

8 Tips to Maintain a Balanced Diet as a Vegetarian or Vegan

How to Keep a Balanced Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

The number of people who are at trying to integrate more plant-based meals into their diets has steadily increased over the past decade. In January 2022, approximately 5% of United States residents were vegetarian, meaning they don’t eat meat products but may eat dairy and/or egg products. Around 2% of the U.S. population is vegan, meaning they eat no animal products whatsoever.

There are many reasons people choose to become vegetarian or vegan. Some include having a diet lower in fat and calories, decreasing the amount of animal products they’re eating, or minimizing their environmental impact. There are also potential health benefits to eliminating or decreasing the amount of meat and animal products you eat.

But like any specific nutritional plan, it’s important to have a well-rounded diet that ensures you get the recommended amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need each day. For vegetarians and vegans, here are some things to help you maintain a balanced diet.

1. Focus on Whole Foods

There’s a plant-based, processed version of just about any food you could want these days. From shrimp scampi to fast food burger imitators, it’s easier than ever to find a faux meat or animal product that tastes like the real thing. That doesn’t always mean processed vegetarian or vegan food is better for you, though. You’ll generally get more nutrients when you make whole foods, including fruits, veggies, and nuts, the star of your nutritional plan.

Plants are dense with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that prevent disease. They also have fiber to increase satiety and are low in calories. Choose whole food plant ingredients instead of processed when you can. Processed vegan and vegetarian products, which come ready-made in a package, often contain extra salt and extra calories. Read nutrition labels carefully, and look at sodium levels. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), diets higher in sodium correlate with a higher risk of developing high blood pressure.

The FDA reports the daily value for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day. If you enjoy products like veggie burgers or meatless sausages, you can make your own and lower your sodium intake compared to buying pre-packaged products.

2. Watch Out for Added Sugars & Fats

You also want to look out for saturated fat and added sugar content in ready-made vegan and vegetarian products like bars, cookies, and frozen foods. Too much saturated fat can lead to weight gain and increased heart disease risk. Added sugar can lead to health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), men should limit their added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (36 grams) a day and women to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) daily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people limit sugar to less than 10% of their total daily calories.

Ideally, saturated fats should make up only 5% of your daily calories. Look out for saturated fat in pre-packaged faux meats and foods like butter, ice cream, and cheese. Saturated fats are also in vegan ingredients like palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut. It’s OK to have these in your diet, just in limited amounts.

When possible, choose low-sugar foods. If you’re using fat, look for unsaturated fats like olive, vegetable, grapeseed, or sunflower oil.

3. Choose High-Protein Foods

Protein is an essential nutrient that helps you maintain healthy muscles, skin, bones, and organs. The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which you can estimate by multiplying weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, someone who weighs 140 pounds should eat around 50 g of protein per day.

High-protein foods increase satiety while they promote strength and health. For vegetarians, eggs are a good source of protein. So are dairy products such as yogurt and cottage cheese. For vegans and vegetarians, the best plant-based protein sources include seeds, nuts, and legumes, like lentils, peas, and beans. Quinoa is also a substantial source of protein among whole grains, with 8 grams of protein per cup.

4. Avoid Refined Carbohydrates

Some vegetarians or vegans may be tempted to replace the meat or animal products they've eliminated with refined grains like white bread or white rice. But a high intake of refined grains correlates with a higher risk of heart disease and death, according to the medical trade journal BMJ.

When you do eat carbs, prioritize whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, or amaranth. The processing of refined grains removes nutrients like dietary fiber, B vitamins, and iron. With whole grains, you’ll get a more nutritionally-packed and more satiety-promoting product.

5. Supplement Vitamin B12, If Needed

Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that facilitates red blood cell formation, nerve function, cell metabolism, and DNA production. It’s found in animal food sources like meat and dairy and may come in fortified foods like cereal.

If you’re vegan, you may not be getting enough vitamin B12. This could lead to anemia, nerve damage, muscle weakness, fatigue, and/or intestinal problems.

To ensure you’re getting the recommended daily amount of 2.4 mg per day, you may want to supplement. There are lots of tasty vegan gummy multivitamins that can help you reach your daily recommended amount.

6. Monitor Iron & Zinc Intake

Iron and zinc help the body maintain a healthy immune system. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, men should get 11 mg of zinc per day, and women should get 8 mg of zinc per day. The amount of iron you need a day varies based on factors like gender, age, and pregnancy status. The National Institutes of Health recommends adult men ages 19 to 50 years old get 8 mg of iron a day and adult women 19 to 50 years old get 18 mg of iron a day.

For vegetarians and vegans, it's important to note zinc and iron aren't as easily absorbed from plant-based sources as they are from meat or eggs. That’s why it's recommended for vegetarians and vegans to double their recommended intake of iron. It's also helpful to eat foods rich in vitamin C to boost iron absorption. Look for foods like legumes, whole grains, and nuts for iron and zinc sources. You can also find iron and zinc in leafy greens. Pair them with foods like strawberries, citrus fruits, and tomatoes to provide vitamin C to aid with absorption.

7. Meet Calcium Requirements

How much calcium you need depends on a variety of factors, including age, gender, and family history of conditions like osteoporosis. Recommended calcium ranges start at 500 mg of calcium a day, up to 1,200 mg of calcium a day for women ages 50 and older.

Vegetarians can get calcium from food sources like dairy products. If you’re vegan, you can find calcium in veggies such as collard greens, soybeans, and kale, as well as calcium-fortified plant milks, fortified orange juice, fortified tofu, almond butter, and sesame seeds.

Again, you may want to supplement calcium if needed. A calcium supplement with vitamin D helps ensure your body absorbs it. Or, look for fortified foods that contain both calcium and vitamin D, such as fortified plant milks, orange juice, and cereal.

8. Include Omega-3 Sources

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that are common in fish. They help maintain heart health, eye health, brain health, and skin health. According to the National Institutes of Health, males ages 14 and older should get 1.6 g of omega-3s a day, and females ages 14 and older should get 1.1 g of omega-3s a day, up to 1.4 g if pregnant.

You can find omega-3s in plenty of food sources as a vegetarian or vegan. Foods like walnuts, beans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and green leafy vegetables have omega-3s.

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Remember when you make any significant life change, including a change to your diet, it’s helpful to talk with an expert to ensure you stay safe and make a smooth transition. Consult with your primary care physician to get a dietician recommendation or learn more about what to focus on.
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