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8 Foods Every Vegetarian Should Eat

There is a world of reasons to go meatless, from heart health to animal welfare. But nutritionally, there's one tricky trade-off. You drastically shrink your body's supply of six vital nutrients: protein and iron—which can be the toughest to get in adequate quantities—plus calcium, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. To help you fill in these gaps, we tapped the expertise of nutritionist Cynthia Sass, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association—and a vegan, so she totally gets it. Here we've identified the "great eight" foods. All are loaded with one or more of these hard-to-get nutrients.

Tofu

Why it's great: Plain tofu has a lot going for it. It's a terrific source of protein, zinc, iron, and it even contains some cholesterol-lowering omega-3 fatty acids. It also gives you more than 100 milligrams (mg) of calcium in a half cup. But the same amount of calcium-enriched tofu gives you up to 350 mg (about one-third of your daily needs) plus roughly 30 percent of your daily vitamin D, which helps your body absorb the calcium—an extra bone-building punch that many people need. Look for enriched soymilk, too, which is also fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Tip: "Tofu can be substituted for the same amount of meat, poultry or fish in almost any recipe," says Sass. Firm tofu works best because it holds its shape when you sauté it or grill it.    

Lentils

Why they're great: Lentils, like beans, are part of the legume family, and like beans, they're an excellent source of protein and soluble fiber. But lentils have an edge over most beans: They contain about twice as much iron. They're also higher in most B vitamins and folate, which is especially important for women of childbearing age as folate reduces the risk for some birth defects. For new vegetarians, lentils are also the perfect way to start eating more legumes because they tend to be less gassy.

Tip: Lentil soup is just the beginning. Add lentils to vegetable stews, chilis or casseroles. Toss them with red onions and vinaigrette. Stir them into curries; cook them with carrots. Experiment with different varieties—red lentils (right) cook up very fast and can be turned into bright purées.    

Beans

Why they're great: A cup a day gives you about one-third of your iron and protein and roughly half your fiber. Even better, most of that is soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol. One cup also provides a good amount of potassium, zinc and many B vitamins, and some calcium too. Just one alert: Rinse canned beans well—they can be soaked in salt.

Tip: It was once thought that to get a complete protein, you needed to combine beans with grains (rice, pasta, bread) at the same meal. "Now we know you just have to eat them during the same day," Sass says. Toss beans and vegetables with whole wheat pasta; make soups and chilis with several varieties; add a sprinkling to grain salads. And for a different taste treat, look for canned heirloom varieties.    

 

Nuts

Why they're great: They're a nifty source of quick, totally palatable protein. In additon, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, macadamias and Brazil nuts are rich in zinc, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Some, like almonds, even provide a decent amount of calcium (about 175 mg in a half cup). There's also some great nut news: "Recent studies show that even though nuts are high in calories, eating them does not lead to weight gain," says Sass. In fact, people who eat nut-rich diets tend to weigh less than those who don't, say researchers at Loma Linda University and Purdue University. Peanuts may even help weight loss. Why nuts don’t make you fat—and may even help you lose weight—isn't clear. "It's possible that nuts make you feel so full that you're less likely to overeat other foods," says Sass. Other experts suspect that the labor-intense job of digesting nuts burns off calories. There are also hints that nuts increase the amount of fat that passes through the digestive tract, which might explain nut-linked weight loss. More research is obviously needed!

Tip: Different nuts give you different nutrients. For example, a half cup of almonds provides about four times as much fiber as the same amount of cashews. Cashews, however, contain about twice as much iron and zinc as almost any other nut. Pecans and walnuts tend to land right in the middle for most nut nutrients—potassium, magnesium, zinc and calcium. Sprinkle them in salads, or keep a bag of mixed nuts in your desk or backpack. Garnish smooth soups with crunchy whole nuts, stir chopped nuts into muffins and add crushed nuts to pie crust.    

Grains

Why they're great: Some enriched whole-grain cereals are fortified with hard-to-get vitamin B12—some even offer 100 percent of a day's requirement in one serving—as well as iron, calcium and many other nutrients. Keep in mind that if you don't eat eggs or dairy, you'll have to take a B12 supplement to make sure you're getting enough. As a group, cereals and other whole-grain foods (whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, etc.) are also high in other B vitamins, zinc and, of course, insoluble fiber, which not only helps whisk cholesterol out of your system but may reduce your risk of colon cancer and other digestive disorders.

Tip: Because different grains provide different nutrients, vary the types you eat. "It's easy to get into a rut of, say, just making brown rice all the time. It's better to mix up the grains you eat, including oatmeal, bulgur, wild rice, whole rye and pumpernickel breads," says Sass. Also try some of the ancient grains—spelt, farro, kamut—which are now sold at most whole foods markets.     

Leafy Greens

Why they're great: Unlike most vegetables, dark leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard and collards contain healthful amounts of iron—especially spinach, which has about 6 grams or about one-third of a day's supply. They're also a great source of cancer-fighting antioxidants; are high in folic acid and vitamin A; and they even contain calcium, but in a form that's not easily absorbed. Cooking greens and/or sprinkling them with a little lemon juice or vinegar makes the calcium more available to your body, says Sass.

Tip: Always try to eat iron-rich foods with foods that are high in vitamin C because the C helps your body absorb the iron. With dark leafy greens, this comes naturally—just toss them into salads with yellow and red peppers, tomatoes, carrots, mandarin oranges or any citrus. Or if you prefer your veggies cooked, sauté a couple of cups of greens in some seasoned olive oil with sweet peppers, garlic and onion.    

Seaweeds

Why they're great: Besides being a terrific source of iron and phytochemicals, many seaweeds—such as alaria, dulse, kelp, nori, spirulina and agar—are good sources of minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iodine, iron and chromium, as well as vitamins A, C, E and many of the Bs. Talk about superfoods!

Tip: Add chopped dulse to salads or sandwiches, sauté it with other vegetables or use it in soups. Use nori sheets as the wrappers for vegetarian sushi. Toast kelp, and crumble it on pasta or rice, or add it to noodle soups. Browse through Japanese or Korean markets to find seaweeds to sample.     Dried

Fruits

Why they're great: They're good, super-convenient sources of iron—and if you combine them with some mixed nuts, you've got a packet of iron and protein you can take anywhere easily. In addition, dried fruits—think apricots, raisins, prunes, mangos, pineapple, figs, dates, cherries and cranberries—provide a wide array of minerals and vitamins as well as some fiber. And even kids love to snack on them.

Tip: Sprinkle them on salads, use in chutneys, stir into puréed squash and sweet potatoes, or blend with nuts and seeds to make your own favorite snack mix. Chopped up, dried fruits make healthful additions to puddings, fruit-based pie fillings, oat bars, cookies, hot and cold cereals—you name it.

Comments on this Article

I just started being a Vegetarian for 2 days and if I just eat greeb leaves and beans and nuts is that enough Nutrion?

im 15 years old i have been a vegetarian since 2005 and for breakfast i have 1 apple and a orange juice, for lunch i have x2 toast, orange and water and also for lunch i have grapes, a salad for example with tomatoes and a drink of lemon juice, for snack apple or a banana and a drink of water

hello Please is there a way I can cook brown rice, I have try and it's still hard.what is the best way and the easyest to cook?????

I have just become a vegetarian and this article has been so much help!

I've been a vegetarian for a few years, but I felt like I had to increase my protein intake -- sure I eat my beans and legumes, but I'm not a big tofu fan. I found a protein supplement online that's working really well for me, it's called Nutribody and it's completely vegetarian and made of brown rice and pea protein. Doesnt make me bloated like other supplements I've tried. Everyone should experiment with different types of proteins, vitamins and supplements -- it can be very different for everyone! Chris

I've also been a vegetarian for years and I'm a 2nd year nutrition science student at Purdue (I know the prof that worked on the nut data!) This is very helpful! Thanks for easy cheat sheet on how to stay healthy!

this is a very helpful website and article.

I've been a vegetarian for years, enjoyed this info. keep it coming.

I started out being a vegetarian about 7 months now; I enjoy being one but i really didn't know what else to eat. This guide was great. :)

This was really helpful on the news they were saying how veg. don't get enough protien, fiber, iron and all that. I just started being vegitarian and enjoy even more now. Thank you!

im deciding to be a vegetarian....but i think im going to be a lacto vegerarian.im not exactly sure yet.but these helped alot!

I have been a vegan for a year and must say loving it. I shop at Publix or Winn Dixie but can't find foods like Nori in the Tampa, Florida area. Does anyone live in Tampa, Florida and have experienced the same thing if so please email me and let me know if you have found a store for Vegans in the area. Thanks

i became a vegetarian about 8 months ago and ive been eating eggs, tofu, and peanuts to get some protein, but i had no clue i needed other things like iron, and im now anemic. my parents have been worried but i didnt want to give up my vegetarian lifestyle, and this article really helped me. im on my way fo being a healthier vegetarian. thanks!

I have been a vegetarian for 5 months and it really helped my weight. I am a vegetarian for many reasons. One reason is because of animals. They are living creatures so you shouldnt just eat them. But this artical has really helped me out. THANKSS!

This all sounds very helpfull but I have a few questions. What about other vegetables that are not leafy greens, for example carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, beets, etc. how much should you eat in your diet? And also why dried fruit, why not fresh when available? What about berries, honey, garlic and onions? I'm considering becoming a vegetarian but it seems that I'll have to be eating all day to get all the nutriants and vitamins.

ive been a vegetarian for over 12 years. And i agree these types of foods are something that most vegetarians should really consider eating.

good advise

Thank You: Are Vegatarians supposed to have mlk or only Soy Milk??

SO helpful! :) Thanks!

i have been a vegetarian for six month and i struggle maintaining my diet, especially not eating animals products cause the doctor said i need to eat red meat for iron

I've been a vegetartian for 3 years and it's really hard to find certain things since being in such a state as Texas everyone loves meat. This article helped me quickly glance over what i should be eating and certain ways to obtain it.

I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years now, and I have never had a problem getting all my vitamins and nutrients. My blood work is always impeccable, even when it comes to my B12. You don't have to eat all day--you just have to make sure the foods you are eating are giving you the most nutrients possible, aka stay away from processed, refined foods and don't just focus on starches, like grains and potatoes and breads like a lot of vegetarians do. Focus on eating a fresh, whole-food diet, with plenty of green vegetables. I juice veggies and fruit everyday as well, which is a great way to get even more vitamins into your system. Also, tempeh is a much better source of protein than tofu because the soy is whole and fermented and offers higher amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as being easier to digest because of the fermentation. Vegetarianism is not as hard as people think, but in order to do it right, it does take some research and a commitment to making wise food choices.

i am just amazed

Very helpful thank you!

Yes, that was very helpful.

I've only been a vegetarian for a few days but I really feel good about it!

I love being a vegetarian, I ate meat when I was a kid (because my family) then went vegetarian for 4 years, then ate meat for about a year and now I'm going back vegetarian. I notice as a vegetarian I just get more motivated to do things and I feel a lot better mentally and physically. I try to stay away from stupid processed veggie stuff like veggie burgers and tofu dogs because that's all processed and a lot of salts. What kills me is how people always get on my case about it or when you go to parties and people only have a fat BBQ and take such an offense if you don't eat anything. I never really felt like a health nut I just want to take care of myself because I'm the only one that needs myself and you only get one body in this lifetime. Does that sound too hippieish?

Ds realy gr8,try it

Im 12 years old and want to become a vegetarian. I think it will be great for my body and i hate thinking animals died so i can eat this meat. My family isn't being very helpful in me tring i dont know what i should do! Please give me some advice on this!

i want to be a vegetarian but i dont lik beans so this helped me alot thanks

I am 15 and have recently decided to become a vegetarian because of a terrible video. This article-and comments-have helped me greatly. Thank you.

Danielle, If its something you're really serious about, you CAN do it. Just believe in yourself. My parents don't agree either, but I do my best. Rachyl

Ive been a vegetarian for almost 2 months now i get most of my protein from beans rice, and nuts. The only liquids i drink are soy milk, cranberry juice, green tea, water, and orange juice. All very good for your body.

Soy beans are one of the most genetic modified beans on the planet. This is why I stop eating soy products including soy milk. I now make my own milk out of almonds,pecans,cashews etc....simply delicous!

I Have Been Vegetarian Since I Was A baby And I Get Everthing I Need (:

thanks from London, about great article, me and my husband are goin vegetarian for a while now, feel great, insipite on the fact i work as fitness coach, so my muscles need protein

I am 15 years old and have just recently became a vegetarian. I am a little concerned due to the fact that i don't really like to step out of the box and try new things. I am greatly concerned about what I can eat to get everything I need to stay healthy. I don't really like beans, or a lot of stuff that is supposed to be essential for vegetarians. Someone please help me!

Ive been a vegetarian for nine months, and every one is saying im not getting my ful nutrition. Im not gonna let it get to me.

Sarah, I dont like beans either, but my mom makes me eat them anyway.I mix my beans in whole wheat rice or vegie meat, its pretty tasty, you should give it a try.

im 11 and i have been a vegetarion for almost 2 years now :)

Hey sky, im twelve and ive only been a vegieterian for 9 months.

What if you are allergic to nuts?

I love being a vegeterian, its great.

Im so glad i found this website, its a lot of help.And now i get to share this information with my family members. Its nice to know that theres a group full pf people who share their exsperiences with other people. Thanks

i just became vegetarian too ,, this article sure is a lot of help ,, thnx

very helpful. thank you so much! ;D

I'm a vegetarian and this article taught me alot. thankyou [:

Being newly vegan with a family of anemics, I've had some problems with iron intake and after reading this and pushing my self to live by it I'm healthier and more energetic! This is officialy bookmarked on my phone so it can be a go to guide for shopping trips! THANK YOU!

Im 32 and found I couldn't bring myself to eat meat anymore due to the welfare of animals. I've been a vegetarian for 3 months, and its important to know your eating the right foods. This artical has helped me alot, specially the tips. Thank you so much.

I've only been a vegitarian for about a week, but I feel really good about it! I am also really excited about being able to save animals from being killed on my behalf. Really excited! In conclusion, this article really helped me! Thanks a lot!