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Many individuals choose to be vegetarian for a variety of reasons ranging from religious to ethical and social. There is no single vegetarian pattern as many practiSe vegetarianism differently.

Vegans eat only food of plant origin, lacto-vegetarians include milk, lacto-ovo vegetarians include both milk and eggs, and pesco-vegetarians eat fish.

Interestingly, some individuals are vegetarians on certain days of the week, while others go on extended periods of vegetarian eating almost akin to a fast. With all these vegetarian eating styles being so different, the nutritional challenges vary.

The good news is that there is evidence that a well-balanced and healthy vegetarian diet is associated with a lower Body Mass Index (BMI), lower blood cholesterol levels and reduced risk of death from heart disease.

If you are a vegetarian or are interested in becoming one, here are some practical tips to eat towards better nutritional balance.

Related: Is It Healthier to Go Vegetarian?

1. Include Enough Plant Proteins

Healthy Food: Tofu

One common temptation in modern vegetarian eating styles is to make up meals that only include rice or noodles with vegetables. While you abstain from food of animal origin, remember to replace them with plant proteins. If you are new to vegetarian ways, you can try to follow traditional vegetarian eating patterns.

  • Chinese vegetarian cuisines include soy-based products such as tofu and taukwa or mock meat as part of the main meals. Delicious desserts made of dried beans, nuts and seeds also provide protein to complete the meal.

  • Indian vegetarian meals serve up savoury lentils and dried whole legumes to complement the main meals. Incorporating yoghurt also peps up the protein content of the diet.

Examples of a serving of plant protein are half a pack of tofu (150g) or a cup (120g) of cooked pulses (peas, beans, lentils). You need to aim for 2 to 3 servings a day. So include enough through your main meals and snacks to reach your daily protein goals.

Plant proteins, except soy, are usually short of one essential amino acid needed to make body proteins. In the past, you may have heard of complementing your plant protein choice at every meal with grains, nuts or seeds.

But now, we know that as long as you eat a balanced diet, one that includes grains, nuts and seeds food that include the missing amino acids, your diet will include all the amino acids it needs to build and repair proteins in the body efficiently.

Related: Soya—The Unique Plant Protein

2. Go for Great Balance

Vegetarians too must eat a well-balanced diet. The My Healthy Plate provides the best guidance for selecting a variety of food from each of the 4 food groups in the correct proportions. Learn more about My Healthy Plate.

Related: Makan Matters: What’s a Healthy Diet?

3. Watch Out for Nutritional Shortfalls

Vegetarian diets may tend to be short on iron, calcium and vitamin B12. So, here is a ready reference for plant sources of these key nutrients:

Nutrient

Major Vegetarian Sources

Iron

Green leafy vegetables, lentils, legumes, iron fortified food and dried fruit

Vitamin B12

Tempeh, dairy products, eggs, fortified products (e.g. cereals)

Calcium

Dairy products, green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified products such as soybean milk, water, juice, cereal, bread, biscuits; tofu made with calcium salts

Zinc

Whole grains, nuts and legumes

Strict vegetarians (vegans) may have to include a daily supplement to meet the vitamin B12 goal. Depending on the type of vegetarianism you practise, other vitamin and mineral supplements may also be necessary, particularly iron and calcium. Consult a healthcare professional about your supplement needs.

Related: Understanding Health Supplements

4. Keep your Choices Low in Fat

Plant proteins are naturally free of cholesterol and low in fat, especially saturated fat. But, many vegetarian cuisines tend to add a lot of fat and deep fried food to serve up popular and delicious dishes. So, keep your vegetarian diet healthier by cooking it with less fat and using unsaturated oils more often.

Related: Canola Oil, Olive Oil, Soybean Oil, Is There a Difference?

5. Moderate Added Salt

Healthy Eating: Use Less Salt  

Many chefs use salt and sodium-containing seasonings and taste enhancers to add flavour to vegetarian dishes. While many plant food are naturally healthy, you need to keep them so by cooking them well.

If you want an additional boost of flavour, select fresh and wholesome ingredients, step up the amount of herbs and spices you add to food. Soybeans, mushrooms and tomatoes are naturally great sources of the umami flavour that many enjoy. So, prepare a delicious stock and keep it on hand to add zest to your cooking.

Related: Spice Up Your Life: Get Fresh with Herbs

6. Select Whole Grains More Often

Healthy Food: Wholemeal Bread  

To improve your vegetarian diet just a notch, include whole grains. Change your regular choice of white rice to whole grain, white bread to wholemeal bread, beehoon to brown rice beehoon, and pasta to wholegrain pasta. These food are good sources of many valuable nutrients such as fibre, B vitamins and vitamin E.

Clever ways to introduce the more nutritious whole grains is to combine a little into your regular refined choice or make whole grains your preferred choice at one of your main meals.


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