By Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N.
Balancing meals correctly is important for anyone who wants to be healthy, even if the meal is vegetarian. A healthy, balanced meal is made up of a half plate of low-calorie vegetables, a quarter plate of whole grains, and a quarter plate of protein.
One of the most common mistakes made by those who eat vegetarian meals is to omit a protein source. This oversight can lead to a large calorie intake during the meal and hunger soon after the meal, which leads to more calories. Protein, more than any other nutrient, makes you feel full. Protein at every meal and snack can help you feel satisfied after eating. Depending on what type of vegetarian meal you eat, here are some protein choices to pick from to fill about one-fourth of your plate: Seafood, eggs, egg whites, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, nuts/seeds, nut butters, hummus, dry beans and the wide variety of soy products.
If using dairy products, choose low-fat or nonfat varieties. The fat that is in dairy products is the type of saturated fat that increases cholesterol levels more than any other type of fat, even the type in red meats. Another benefit to making this switch is a lower calorie intake and a better chance maintaining or losing weight.
Protein is the most common thing missing from a vegetarian plate, but low-calorie vegetables are often forgotten, too. This group of vegetables is crucial for three reasons:
If you're trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight while eating vegetarian meals, aim to fill half your plate with one or two of the following low-calorie vegetables: tomatoes, spinach, salad, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, asparagus or bell peppers.
Starchy vegetables should not be used to fill half the plate, since they have about triple the calories of low-calorie vegetables. So if you'd like to eat an ear of corn in September, have it replace the starch (rice, pasta or bread) on one-quarter of the plate. Starchy vegetables include green peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squashes.
The final quarter of your balanced vegetarian plate should be made up of whole grains. Choose whole grains over white, processed grains. Whole grains contain high fiber, so they are more filling and don't raise blood-sugar levels as much as other carbohydrates do. Also, whole grains have more disease-fighting phytochemicals. So instead of going white, go the whole-grains way. Choose brown rice over white rice, whole-grain bread over white bread, and whole-wheat pasta over white pasta.
For the non-vegetarians, one of the benefits of including vegetarian meals in your repertoire is to add variety to your eating plan, so that you're eating something different than chicken every day. If you're a vegetarian and you find yourself eating the same meals each week, one of the following two ideas may help. First, order a cooking magazine (such as Vegetarian Times) that includes vegetarian recipes on a monthly basis, or buy a vegetarian cookbook. Try a new recipe once every week or two.
Also, consider trying one of a vast array of soy products, including but not limited to veggie burgers, tofu, veggie chicken nuggets, tempeh, soymilk, yogurt and cheeses. If you already include some of these, try a new one. Besides increasing the variety of your meals, soy products also provide many health benefits, including protection against cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Include healthy fats daily to feel full and satisfied and for overall health. Healthy fats include olive, canola, safflower, sunflower and corn oils; nuts; seeds; avocados; and fatty fish. If you don't eat fish, you may be lacking a sufficient intake of omega-3 oils, or sometimes referred to as fish oils. This type of fat is an essential fatty acid. It is essential that you eat this type of fat regularly, because your body can't make it. Deficiency of essential fatty acids can lead to a poor immune system, dry skin and unfavorable cholesterol changes.
If you're not eating fish, it is important that you eat foods with alpha-linolenic acid, a type of fat that can be converted into omega-3 fats in your body. The richest sources of alpha-linolenic acid are flaxseed oil, English walnuts, canola oil and soy oil. A serving of one of these on a daily basis can help you avoid a deficiency of omega-3 oils.
If you're choosing two or three dairy products daily or taking calcium supplements, your intake of calcium is probably fine. If you're not, be sure to choose other high-calcium foods daily such as tofu (made with calcium), calcium-enriched orange juice, Total cereal, turnip greens, kale, broccoli, fortified oatmeal and baked beans.
Important note for teen-agers: The most critical time to fill your bones with calcium is in your teen-age years. If you don't provide your body with sufficient calcium in your teens, your bones will be less dense throughout your life.
When eliminating various degrees of animal products, it may be harder to get enough iron and vitamin B12.
Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N., is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.