Nourishment for High School Graduates: Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition
Welcome to the sixth installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. In the previous posts, I laid out several of the challenges that young adults face when first leaving home and how these challenges affect nutrition, talked about planning balanced, satisfying meals and planning balanced, satisfying snacks to help you get between meals and perform at your best all day (or night) long, gave some ideas about how you can make the most of the inexpensive and convenient foods that most of you are likely to eat by nutritionally enhancing your meals with things like vegetables and spices, and finally discussed how to eat well even though time, space, and money are limited. In this post, I’ll teach you about the basics of vegetarian nutrition since for most of you, meat is going to be a luxury.
It may seem strange to devote an entire post of this series just to vegetarianism. But I promise there are good reasons! Some of you may already be vegetarians. Some of you may decide that now that you have more freedom and independence, you would like to try out vegetarianism. But for most of you, the biggest reason that you need to learn this is because MEAT IS EXPENSIVE. Even if you have no interest at all in becoming a vegetarian, it is quite possible that you will become what one of my college professors dubbed an, “obligate vegetarian”. This basically means that you are eating so little meat that it’s not contributing substantially to your nutrition and you need to replace missing nutrients with other things in your diet. (Yes, pepperoni is a meat and definitely not vegetarian, but it is very low in protein so it doesn’t really count as a meat nutritionally.)
When you eat little or no meat, the main nutrients that you need to think about are protein and iron.
Protein, as we have discussed before, is a very important part of your nutrition. Your body will take apart the proteins that you eat and use them for thousands of different purposes in the body, including maintaining muscles (or building them if conditions are right), maintaining your immune system, and so much more. It also helps your meals and snacks provide you with greater fullness and satisfaction so you’re less likely to overeat. Meat is an excellent source of protein, but it’s not the only one.
Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Think of amino acids like letters in the alphabet. Depending on which ones you use and what order you use them in, you can make thousands of words and millions of sentences. Likewise the body can use these amino acids to make millions of different proteins for millions of different jobs. One of the biggest reasons that meat, eggs, and dairy products are such excellent sources of protein is that they contain complete proteins. Complete proteins have all of the amino acids that the human body needs in the proportions that we need them. Incomplete proteins by contrast may have the same amount of protein, but they do not necessarily have all of the amino acids that we need and they do not have them in the proportions that we need them. Imagine trying to compose a tweet without the letters V, S, or M and with only one or two E’s and L’s. It just wouldn’t work.
Vegetarians need not despair about these incomplete plant proteins. If you eat other animal products such as eggs and dairy products, you will still get plenty of high quality complete proteins. If you are vegan or don’t eat many eggs or dairy products for other reasons, you can still get all of the amino acids you need by eating complimentary proteins. Using our alphabet analogy, it’s as if one food has letters A through P and the other food has letters R through Z. By eating both of these foods, you will meet your protein needs just as well as if you were eating animal proteins. This is actually quite easy since grains (what, rice, etc.) and legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) are complimentary proteins to each other.
Examples of Complimentary Proteins:
- Rice and Beans
- Corn Bread and Baked Beans
- Lentil Tostadas
- Split Pea Soup with Crackers
- Bean Burritos
- Hummus and Pita Chips
- Black-Eyed Peas and Corn
Please note that you DO NOT HAVE TO EAT THESE AT THE SAME TIME. As long as you eat complimentary proteins within a day of each other, you will be fine.
Also, soy is the only complete vegetarian protein. So if you are drinking soy milk or eating tofu and other soy-based products on a regular basis, you will also get all of the amino acids that you need.
Iron is a mineral that we need in order to carry oxygen in our blood. It’s the reason that blood is red. Without enough iron, energy levels drop and it becomes difficult to concentrate, learn, perform well, and fight off illnesses. If iron levels remain low for too long, you will become anemic. This is especially true for young women who are menstruating. In fact, iron is the only nutrient that women need more of than men. Every time you menstruate or lose blood, you lose iron and it needs to be replaced. Meat is not only rich in iron, but it is the kind of iron that is most easily absorbed by the body. If you don’t eat meat, your odds of become iron deficient or even anemic increase substantially.
Good non-meat sources of iron include, but are not limited to:
- black strap molasses (great for baking!)
- fortified breakfast cereals
- Swiss chard
Iron can also be a tricky nutrient because it isn’t particularly well-absorbed. To maximize absorption, you need to:
- Have your iron with a good source of Vitamin C. Think bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, broccoli, or others.
- Have your iron at a separate time from calcium. Calcium and iron compete for the same receptors in your digestive system, so when they’re in there together, they block each other.If your iron levels are fine, this might not be a problem, so go ahead and enjoy your bean and cheese burritos and fortified cereal with milk; just make sure that you also enjoy high iron foods without dairy foods as well.
- If you have iron levels low enough that you need to take an iron supplement, make sure you take your supplement at a time when you are not eating dairy or taking a calcium supplement. If the form of iron you are taking says, “ferric” instead of “ferrous”, make sure you take it with a small amount of Vitamin C, such as a glass of orange juice (but stick to “ferrous” iron supplements as much as possible). And talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian to get advice on dealing with side effects such as constipation. Correcting iron levels takes a long time, so it’s important that you manage your symptoms so that you can keep taking your supplement.
Finding Satisfaction Without Meat
If you’re accustomed to eating meat at every meal, you it may be difficult to believe that you could be satisfied without it. I definitely grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household so I understand how foreign this idea may seem. As I got used to cooking on a budget and refined my cooking skills, I was able to find great satisfaction in my meals even if they didn’t have meat. Today, I actually prefer it if about half of my meals are meatless. I still enjoy meat, so I haven’t become vegetarian, but I have learned to love vegetarian cuisine as well. Not only has this made my overall eating experiences more varied and satisfying, it also regularly saves money.
Here are a few ideas for upping the satisfaction in your vegetarian meals so that you don’t feel deprived when your meals are meatless:
- Mushrooms, tofu, and eggplant all have a nice meaty texture when prepared properly. Take the time to learn good techniques.
- Do not think of items like tofu as fake meat. They aren’t. They are their own foods. Learn to appreciate them for what they are rather than comparing them to what they are not.
- Make sure you still have a decent amount of protein at your meal so you don’t feel hungry at the end.
- Eggs are generally inexpensive, high-quality protein. In the past they were vilified because of the cholesterol that they contain, but we’ve since learned that, not only do they not contain as much cholesterol as first thought (the tests were flawed), but eating them regularly does not harm your health. Use good sense and don’t go overboard.
- Protein does not have to be the star of the meal. A sprinkling of cheese and a side of beans can give you plenty of protein and your main dish could be a salad or grilled mushrooms.
- Season up beans or lentils the way you would meat to make vegetarian tacos or sloppy joes.
- Try ethnic and regional dishes that are meant to be served vegetarian rather than just adapting meat-based recipes.
- Find good vegetarian food blogs and cookbooks. There are recipes and ideas for all levels of cooking experience. Plenty of people have done this before you, so learn from them.
I hope that many of you will find this helpful as you navigate nourishing your body without the help of a much or any meat. If you decide that you would like to become vegan, I strongly urge you to speak with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Animal products provide many important, life-sustaining nutrients and you will need to learn how to replace them with plant-based foods. A dietitian can guide you through this transition and maybe give you some tools that you can use to help reassure parents or anyone else who might be concerned about your choice.
Here are some of my favorite easy vegetarian meals:
Please note that if you follow these links, they will lead you to different websites. I am not responsible for the upkeep or content of these websites.
When I make these, I use whatever vegetables I have hanging around in my kitchen. Quick, easy, cheap, and delicious! Fresh cilantro is fantastic, but they are still good without it.
I found this on Beating the Lunch Box Blues, which is no longer online, but you can find the book by J.M. Hirsch for sale.
When you have leftover spaghetti, sautee up some vegetables (carrots and bell peppers are nice, but just about any vegetable will do), mix up some peanut butter and soy sauce in another bowl and add it to the pan along with your leftover spaghetti. Stir to coat. You can eat it right away or chill it and eat it cold as a packed lunch. If you’re feeling fancy, you can add ingredients like chili paste, crushed red pepper, fresh ginger, green onions, and sesame oil for extra flavor. A similar recipe can be found here: https://www.allrecipes.com/video/4147/peanut-noodles/?internalSource=picture_play&referringId=13974&referringContentType=Recipe
Pesto Pasta Salad
I make something very similar to this. The sauce I use may vary and I will often use a pre-made pesto rather than making a pesto on the fly. It can be served hot or cold.
What are your favorite inexpensive vegetarian meals? Tell us in the comments.