To switch from a conventional western diet to a vegetarian diet – for ethical or health reasons – can be daunting. Meat often features as a mainstay of every meal, and is often our only source of protein, certain vitamins and nutrients.
To simply cut out the meat leaves us with perhaps a few salads and some cooked carrots – hardly the varied and nutritional diet we need.
It is easy, too, for new vegetarians to swap out meat for more carbs – pasta, potatoes, and rice providing a filling meal, but not exactly supplying everything our body needs to thrive. Or worse, dousing everything we eat in cheese in an effort to supply our protein needs.
Relax. A vegetarian diet doesn’t require supplements from a bottle. You can eat a range of foods that will provide for all your needs – even those with a very active lifestyle.
Legumes, Beans, Peas
Firstly, let me talk to you about one of the cheapest, healthiest and tastiest backbones to your meals. That’s the peas, lentils, pulses, and beans. A hearty bean stew, a vegetarian chilli, a bright green pea soup. All excellent ways of getting a good wallop of protein, and a good head start on your fibre needs. A salad made from chickpeas, a hummus dip for some celery and carrot sticks, a black bean burrito…. there are endless variations on these basic ingredients which will ensure you never get bored.
A few of my favourites:
Azuki Red Rice (made with azuki beans)
Split Pea Soup (with a splash of lemon juice)
Legumes are great sources of protein, but they don’t contain all of the amino acids that meat does. A quick and easy way to compensate is to serve your beans with some grains. Serve your pea soup with whole wheat bread, your curried lentils with rice, and your chilli with tortillas and you can’t go wrong.
Stick to the less refined versions of grains – brown or wild rice, whole wheat bread, and not only will you get plenty of fibre but also trace nutrients, less sugar, a slower release of energy, and you’ll stay full for longer.
If, after all that, you still feel the need for a protein boost, Quinoa is an amino acid-rich staple that is easy to cook, packs a powerhouse of nutrients, and can be made to taste however you want.
Fruit and Vegetables
Vegetarian diets are often associated with salads and fruit – yet it is surprisingly easy to miss them out. Reaching for a packet of chips, or a candy bar is convenient, but every healthy diet includes a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
Ideally you want to include some vegetables at every meal – either in the form of a side salad or a starter, or included in the main course. Make sure you eat some of the following:
Leafy greens –
For example, spinach, kale, chard or ‘greens’. If you don’t like the taste too much, blend them with some fruit and a little bit of water into a ‘green smoothie’. Greens contain fantastic amounts of nutrients from vitamin K to iron to folate. If you ever feel tired, ill, or under the weather, a couple of servings of green leafy vegetables are definitely the way to go.
Colourful Fruit & Veg –
Things like carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries – anything bright and colourful is certain to contain an abundance of healthy vitamins. Orange often signifies high amounts of beta-carotene – a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory source – while blueberries are much better for your heart than a glass of red wine.
Raw and Cooked –
Raw vegetables and fruit retain a lot of their fibre and nutrients, whilst also being the ultimate convenience food. Snack on carrot sticks and celery (maybe with that hummus dip – or a bit of peanut butter!) and enjoy a nice fruit salad once in a while (perhaps with some yoghurt?).Cooked vegetables are no slackers though – especially tomatoes. A good, tomato based sauce can improve plenty of dishes – anything from pasta to cabbage rolls. Have a side of green beans or corn, and jazz up your risotto’s, stews and soups with plenty of root veg.
Oats are a fantastic breakfast item, and there are also a lot of high-quality oat based snack bars. They are a concentrated source of fiber and nutrients, and porridge tastes wonderful with apples cooked in and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Nuts and Seeds
Last – but definitely not least – are the nuts and seeds. These range from peanuts to almonds, sunflower seeds to hemp seeds. All are delicious, great sources of protein, ideal for snacking or adding to other meals, and contain a variety of benefits in themselves. Hemp seeds, for example, contain the ideal balance of Omega 3 and 6, provides a complete protein, and loads of trace minerals. You can put hemp seeds on salads, in porridge, in snack bars, in smoothies, or just eat them by the handful.
So – still wondering what to eat? Let me make some suggestions!
Spicy dal on brown rice.
Yoghurt with chopped apples and hemp-seeds.
Big leafy salad with sunflower seeds and salsa dressing.
Vegetable and bean rich chilli wrapped in tortillas.
Mango and avocado salad with lime juice.
Refried beans with guacamole wrapped in romaine leaves.
Pasta with broccoli and tomato sauce.
Split pea soup with a hunk of crusty bread.
Banana, blueberry and spinach smoothie.
Apple and cinnamon porridge sprinkled with linseeds.
Stir-fried vegetables over quinoa.
Scrambled eggs with tomatoes and mushrooms.
Broccoli with chickpeas.