Research supports that a plant-based diet is beneficial to health, but cutting out animal products won’t suddenly make a poor diet nutritious. Whether you are interested in becoming a healthy vegetarian or simply want to improve your eating habits, follow these nutrition tips.
Take a test run.
There are many versions of a plant-based diet.
Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but not meat, fish, or eggs.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, but not meat or fish.
Ovo-vegetarians include eggs, but not dairy, meat, or fish.
Vegans consume no animal products of any kind.
Flexitarians eat a plant-based diet, but occasionally include meat and other animal products.
Don’t attempt to make all of your dietary changes overnight. Try a new way of eating for a few weeks, and assess how you feel. You might decide you want to include dairy or eggs, or that you want to eliminate animal products altogether.
Pay attention to nutrient intake.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports that well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate. However, when reducing animal products, it’s important to find new sources for the nutrients that you previously obtained from these foods. Here are a few of the specific nutrients that need special attention.
Protein: It is easy to get the protein you need from vegetarian sources, but not if you switch from meat to all fruits and vegetables. Eat protein-rich plant foods such as beans, quinoa, nuts, or seeds regularly.
Iron: Plant-based iron is not as well-absorbed by the body as iron from animal sources. Like protein, a vegetarian diet can provide plenty of iron, but increasing overall iron intake and consuming adequate vitamin C (which helps with iron absorption) are important. (See Eating to Increase Iron Absorption)
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as fish, shellfish, meat, eggs, and dairy. There are no plant sources that contain an adequate amount of the active form of this vitamin. If you still eat eggs, dairy, or fish, a vitamin B12 deficiency may not be a concern. However, if you eliminate all animal products from your diet, talk to your healthcare provider about this vitamin. Despite many circulating myths, vitamin B12 is essential, and because folate can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, you may need a supplement.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as pumpkin seeds, kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, provide short-chain ALA which must be converted to longer chain EPA and DHA to be used by the body. Unfortunately, this conversion rate is low. Plant foods are still considered a beneficial source of omega-3s, but if you do not eat a variety of vegetables or cold-water, fatty fish (rich in EPA and DHA), an algae supplement (a plant-based source of DHA) will help you boost your intake. (See 5 Things to Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Choose minimally processed foods.
Foods marketed as vegetarian can be found all over the grocery store. Take a closer look, and you will see that some of these highly processed foods are also full of sodium, fat, and sugar. There is no need to rely on these foods when eating a plant-based diet. Whether you eat meat or eliminate it, your health will benefit from eating more nutritious, minimally processed and fresh foods. Seek out beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to make up the bulk of your food intake.
Learn new cooking techniques.
Despite the delicious plant-based recipes and menu items that are now available, many people still equate vegetarian to unappetizing. Consider signing up for a vegetarian cooking class or purchase a vegetarian cookbook. Once you learn how to prepare grain salads, mushrooms, tofu, beans, and leafy greens you will enjoy vegetarian eating much more. The knowledge you gain will also allow you to add variety to your diet, ensuring that you get the nutrients your body needs.
Before you grab a plate and jump in the food line, take a look at what is offered. Results of observational research conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University report that this practice is a characteristic shared by thinner people versus those who are overweight. Circle the buffet table and put all of the foods into three categories -- savor, sample, and skip. Take an appropriate portion of the foods you must try, take a taste of those that spark your curiosity, and skip foods that are not special to the occasion.
Use a smaller plate.
That same study by Wansink also showed that thinner people were about seven times more likely to select a smaller plate when eating at a buffet. So sneak to the dessert table for your plate and keep your portions under control. If you are hosting the cookout, offer your guests a few sizes of dinner plates to encourage healthier eating.
Grab the furthest seat.
When you sit with food in sight, or worse, within arms reach, it can tempt you to eat more. After you fill your plate, grab a seat as far from the food as possible. Making food even slightly more inconvenient may help you rethink the idea of a second helping.
Contribute lighter options.
Many parties are potluck affairs so take the opportunity to bring a healthier dish. Simple changes to your favorite picnic foods, such as substituting brown mustard or Greek yogurt in mayonnaise-based dressings and adding extra vegetables to a pasta salad, reduces calories and fat without sacrificing the familiar flavor. (See Healthy Tips to Lighten Up Picnic Foods.)
Know your strategy.
If you want to stay on track, but have no plan in place, you set yourself up for overeating. Your strategy doesn’t have to include denying yourself all of your favorite foods. Decide how they will work into your current eating and exercise plan. Enjoy a healthy breakfast and a morning workout the day of the party. Plan what and how much you will eat. You may not know exactly what will be served, but making a plan to have one serving of dessert and one alcoholic beverage will help you stay on track.
Be aware of emotional eating.
Everything from happiness and excitement to anxiety and stress can lead to emotional eating. Know how you react in social situations. Sometimes they can cause anxiety, especially if you are meeting new people. Simply taking notice of how you feel and not allowing it to cause you to graze the food table will help you avoid overeating.
Planning healthy meals for your week doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Incorporate some of these ideas for make-ahead meals that will help you put nutritious food on the table despite a busy schedule.
Pot of Beans
If you use a slow cooker, there are few meals simpler than a pot of beans. Soak 1 pound of black beans in water overnight. Then add the beans, 6 cups of water, 3 cloves of minced garlic, and a small diced onion to your slow cooker. Cook the beans on high for 5-6 hours or low for about 8 hours. Add seasonings such as cumin, basil, chili powder, and salt to taste.
Fully cooked beans can get mushy after being frozen so remove any you plan to freeze about 1 hour before the beans are done cooking. Beans can be served over brown rice, as a filling for tacos, or topped with an egg for breakfast. Puree the beans and add your favorite spices for a vegetable dip, or use the puree to thicken and flavor soups and pasta sauces.
Roasted and Sauteed Vegetables
Broccoli and cauliflower florets can be roasted on a baking sheet for 20 minutes in a 425 degrees Fahrenheit oven. Use them as a side dish, or serve them with quinoa for a full meal. Leftovers make a healthy pizza topping, or reheat the broccoli and cauliflower with vegetable stock and puree for a filling soup. Bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms can be sauteed to make vegetable fajitas. Use leftovers as a filling for calzones or omelets, or in a pasta salad.
Lean Ground Meats
Save money by purchasing lean ground beef, chicken, or turkey in bulk. Use a portion for a meatloaf on the weekend. At the same time, make some into patties or meatballs to freeze for easy burgers or pasta on a busy night. Cook the rest in a skillet and refrigerate for 2-3 days or freeze portions for up to 2 months to use in tacos or for chili.
Whole chickens can be roasted in the oven, grilled, or for much less hassle, use the slow cooker. Rub the skin of a 3 ½ to 4 pound whole chicken with your favorite spices. Arrange 2 quartered onions and 2-3 peeled cloves of garlic in the bottom of the slow cooker. Place the chicken (breast side up) on top, cover with the lid and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours, or until the meat begins to fall off the bone. Once the chicken has cooled, shred the meat using two forks (and clean hands). Divide the meat into portions that you can refrigerate or freeze. Shredded chicken is great to have on hand for quick chicken salad sandwiches, wraps, pot pies, fried rice, soups and stews, and Mexican dishes like nachos, tacos, or quesadillas.
When stored in a glass baking dish or disposable baking pan, casseroles can go from freezer, to oven, to table for an easy weeknight meal. The tricky part is making healthier versions without high-calorie and high-fat cream sauces, cheeses, and meats. (Our Sweet Potato Lentil Shepherd’s Pie is a great option for a healthy casserole.)
Keep in mind foods such as eggs, cooked white potatoes, lettuces, cooked pasta and rice, and milk or cream based sauces do not freeze well. When you are ready to use your casserole, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator or take it straight from freezer to oven. You will need to increase the baking time by 1/3 to 1/2 the time called for in the recipe. Test the internal temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure it reaches at least 165 degrees.
Oatmeal for Breakfast
Oatmeal is a healthy breakfast that can be made ahead for the family to enjoy all week. For 8 servings, combine 2 cups of steel cut oats with 8 cups of water in the slow cooker and cook on low for 4 hours. Divide the oats into single-serve storage containers for the refrigerator or freezer. Nuts and dried fruits can be added during the cooking process, or you can leave the oats unflavored and add fresh berries, nuts, seeds, honey, or maple syrup when you reheat them. Add about 1 tablespoon of water or milk before reheating to give the oats a smoother, just-cooked consistency. (Try our Almond Cherry Steel-cut Oatmeal.)
Maintaining a healthy body weight is important, but it should not be confused with being physically fit. Simply being thin does not protect you from health conditions related to a sedentary lifestyle.
Research supports fitness.
A person can appear thin while having excess visceral fat -- the fat around vital organs that increases disease risk -- making weight alone a poor indicator for overall health. Researchers use the term metabolically fit to describe a person who is a regular exerciser and overweight, but is without health risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Studies show that, despite being overweight, the metabolically fit have no higher death risk than those who are fit and maintain a normal weight.
This research indicates that thinness doesn’t always equal fitness, but it is also no reason to abandon your weight loss goals. Maintaining a healthy weight puts less stress on your joints and can improve your energy levels.
Measure your fitness.
Fitness should be your goal regardless of your body weight. There are three components that define your total fitness level:
Cardiorespiratory endurance – Often measured by the step test, it is the ability of the heart, lungs, and vascular system to work together to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body during activity.
Muscular endurance, power, and strength – Measured by push up tests, sit up tests, and hand grip, it’s the ability of the muscles to contract, generate force, and sustain repeated contraction.
Flexibility – Measured by the sit-and-reach test, flexibility is a measure of the range of motion around joints.
Fitness centers, worksite health fairs, and university exercise labs provide tests for these components.
Pass these health tests.
Health tests help you identify risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Remember that those considered metabolically fit do not have health risk factors despite the fact that they are overweight according to their BMI. Regularly schedule appointments with your healthcare provider to assess these health indicators. He or she may recommend more tests to determine your overall health status.
Fasting blood glucose - 70 to 100 mg/dL is normal
Triglycerides - below 150 mg/dL is desirable
HDL cholesterol - greater than 60 mg/dL is desirable
Blood pressure - less than 120 mmHg over less than 80 mmHg is normal
Exercise regardless of your weight.
Exercise is a key factor in staying metabolically fit. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week for improved health. Also incorporate two or three days of strength training and two or three days of flexibility training each week for a balanced exercise program to improve your metabolic fitness.
Socks wear thin, sports bras lose support, waistbands stretch out, and the UPF in sun-protective clothing decreases with each wash. Toss exercise clothing that is worn out and donate what you don’t wear. Tennis shoes last for about 300 to 400 miles of activity. Get fitted for a new pair, and donate those that are past their prime to a program such as Soles4Souls.
Simplify your diet.
Now is the time to take advantage of spring's fresh produce. Concentrate on lighter foods and fewer ingredients. Skip the packaged products, and reach for fruits of the season, such as strawberries, raspberries, and apricots. Incorporate nutrient-rich asparagus, pea pods, and crisp greens into your meals.
Add a meditative workout to your week.
Head out on a nature hike or stretch at a place in the park with the best views. Take in your surroundings and be grateful for the gift of exercise and health.
Invite a friend.
Expand your support network. Start a walking group and exercise together a few times a week. Host a monthly cooking club where each member shares healthy ways to make favorite meals.
Set a goal for summer.
Pick a fun 5K to walk or run, set the number of standard push ups you will accomplish in one set, or aim to climb all the stairs at the stadium without stopping for a break. Whatever the goal, make sure it spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S.
Throw out a bad habit.
Maybe you can’t resist the candy dish after a stressful morning meeting, you skip stretching after workouts, or you indulge in a few more specialty coffees each week than you should. Even with all the positive changes you have made, there is likely one bad habit that sticks around. Now is the time to kick it to the curb.
Try a new exercise time.
Extended daylight is one of the best things about the arrival of spring. If you've been squeezing in a lunchtime workout all winter, try switching things up with an early morning run or a tennis match after work.
Trade in a boring routine.
Your body needs new challenges to stay fit so it’s important to change up your workout routine every four to six weeks. Spring is a great time to introduce new exercises by taking your workout outdoors. Try boot camp at the park, join a weekend cycling club, or try trail running.
Get a check up.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults have a cholesterol check every five years. If you are overdue, spring is the perfect time to make an appointment with your doctor to assess your overall health status.