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Vegetarianism 101: The 'nuts & oats' of plant-based eating

boston college dining services

By Sheila Tucker, MA, RD, LDN
Administrative Dietitian, B.C. Dining

veg_newVegetarianism is 'in', in case you were wondering. Demographic survey data reported in 1995 stated that 50% of college-age women and 32% of college-age men say vegetarianism is hip, cool, in. Additionally, over 12 million adult Americans consider themselves vegetarians. Trend followers aside, people have been vegetarian for centuries and for a variety of reasons. The decision to follow a vegetarian way of eating can be made for religious, cultural, ethical, health and economic reasons, to name a few. And a healthy, balanced plant-based diet is possible whether you choose to avoid all animal products (a vegan diet); avoid poultry, meat & fish while still consuming eggs and dairy products (a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet); or something in between the two.


Hill of Beans: Vegetarian Diet Research

Medical research and observation data suggest that there are positive health benefits to following a vegetarian diet. Incidence of several chronic diseases and conditions (like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers) is reduced in populations following a vegetarian diet. This may be related to the beneficial vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, phytochemical and fiber content of plant-based eating. Reduced risk of colon cancer is associated with diets high in fiber, fruits and vegetables. Folic acid, a B-vitamin in orange juice, leafy greens and whole grains, can help lower blood homocysteine levels, a substance associated with risk of atherosclerosis. Antioxidant nutrients, like Vitamins C & A found in citrus fruits and leafy greens, and phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals like lycopene in tomatoes) are being closely watched for their possible disease fighting capabilities. A well-planned plant-based diet is often low in total and saturated fat, a key ingredient in a heart healthy lifestyle. The evidence is mounting that choosing a vegetarian diet has a multitude of health benefits.


Bean There, Done That: Be in-the-know before you become a vegetarian

Like any lifestyle decision, following a vegetarian diet requires some special consideration to make sure your decision has healthy results.


In days of old, vegetarians were instructed to match up protein sources at every meal to get the right mix for the puzzle of needed amino acids (building blocks of protein). Now we realize that it need not be such an effort; our bodies are pretty efficient at completing the puzzle on their own, given a variety of proteins any time in the day and enough overall fuel. Good sources of vegetarian protein include legumes (like beans, split peas, lentils, soy products), eggs, cheese, yogurt, milk. Nuts, grains and vegetables also contain protein. Even strength-training or endurance athletes, who might require a bit more protein than nonathletes, can meet their protein needs with a vegetarian diet with careful planning and sufficient fuel intake. Athletes and nonathletes, vegetarian or not, who do not meet their daily fuel requirements will have their dietary protein intake sacrificed by the body for use as fuel instead of its intended use as an important body building block.

For more on vegetarian nutrition for athletes, see


The mineral iron is an essential part of our blood’s oxygen carrying system. There are two types of iron, heme and nonheme. Vegetarian diets only contain nonheme iron, the less well-absorbed form of the two. So, paying careful attention to iron sources is part of assuring a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Vegetarian sources of iron include legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils for example), fortified cereals, whole grains and dried fruits. Dark green leafy vegetables also contain iron, but it is complexed with fibrous-type plant substances making it less available than some other plant iron sources. Nonheme iron absorption can be helped along with the addition of a Vitamin C source at the same meal, like tomato sauce or citrus fruit. Coffee and tea inhibit iron absorption; wait for after after-dinner (at least an hour) for that cup of tea. Interestingly enough, the medical literature reports that vegetarians and omnivores are equally likely to be iron deficient. There goes that myth!

For more on iron in a vegan diet

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B-12 is needed by the body to help cells divide properly. Lack of B-12 can lead to anemia and nerve damage. Vitamin B-12 is found in all animal foods, including dairy products and eggs. So, lacto-ovo vegetarians have good sources of Vitamin B-12 in their baseline diets. Vegans however, because they consume no animal products, must rely on a supplemental form of B-12. Look for fortified cereals, fortified soymilk and fortified nutritional yeast. Some folks market plant sources of B-12 in sea vegetables and tempeh, but these sources are metabolically inactive and should not be considered as a useful dietary source.

Calcium & Vitamin D

Calcium and Vitamin D are important nutrients for building and maintaining bone health throughout our lives. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can find good sources of calcium and Vitamin D in dairy products, like milk, yogurt and cheese. Vegans need to carefully check labels for fortified plant sources such as calcium-fortified soymilk, calcium-fortified tofu, Vitamin D and calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and calcium-fortified orange juice. Dark green leafies like kale and collard greens, almonds and blackstrap molasses contain calcium, too. Vitamin D can come from a nondietary source, the sun. We need about fifteen minutes of unprotected strong sun exposure a day to get sufficient Vitamin D. Those of us living in the northern latitudes (or those is smoggy cities) should not consider sun exposure a good source of Vitamin D except in the warmer months. Bone health can also be fostered with weight-bearing and resistance training in the vegetarian and nonvegetarian alike. So, take a walk during that fifteen minutes you are in the sun and do double duty!

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Much has been written on the benefits of omega-3 fats like EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in deep, cold-water fish and some eggs. These fats may play a role in heart disease risk, among other benefits being researched. Vegetarians can obtain the precursor to these fats, linolenic acid, in plant sources such as flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and some soy products like edamame and tofu. The body does convert the plant linolenic acid to DHA and EPA, but the amounts are not as concentrated as those from fish.


L'Eggo My Legume: the how-to of vegetarian eating

It’s plain fact that a well-planned vegetarian diet can be quite healthy. The decision to be a vegetarian might be made easily by some. The hard part is doing it right.

You may choose to go cold turkey (or tofurkey, really) to begin your vegetarian lifestyle OR to move step-by-step towards your goal. Here are some ideas to help you on your way:

1. Substitute plant proteins for animal proteins in food dishes that you already enjoy:
  Soy alternatives are available as copycats to burgers, hotdogs, ground hamburger, sausage, cheese, pepperoni and a host of others. Try making tacos with soy crumble, a pizza with soy pepperoni or sausage, spaghetti sauce with soy “meat”balls. Try different brands for a wider taste of what is available.
  Try adding beans. A formerly all-meat chili is an easy start. Check out vegetarian baked beans to go with that vegetarian hotdog. Toss some chickpeas or cannellini beans into your marinara sauce for great plant protein.
  Try a stir-fry with tofu or tempeh, both soy products, instead of chicken, beef or shrimp. Many grocery stores carry marinated tofu and tempeh in the refrigerator section to make preparation even easier. You can even make a sautéed cutlet from one of these products for vegetarian cutlet parmesan.
2. Explore recipes from different cultures. Most Eastern cultures have many wonderful vegetarian dishes. Be adventuresome and try a new restaurant. You may find some new favorites.
3. Aim for variety:
  Try to enjoy many different foods rather than get stuck in a rut of the same two or three dishes; you don't want to miss out on the great taste and varied nutrition of other foods.
  Choose fruits and vegetables of many different colors, including green and orange. Get some vitamin C from tropical fruits, citrus, melon and berries.
  Look for a variety of grains, cereals, crackers and breads concentrating on whole grains (like whole wheat, oats, brown rice and the like).
  Rotate different sources of protein (see below).
4. Count your calcium:
  Cow's milk, yogurt and cheese all contain calcium. Aim for low fat versions most often.
  Fortified soy milk, yogurt and cheese are widely available. Be sure to check for calcium and Vitamin D fortification on the label.
  Calcium-fortified juices and cereals are becoming more widely available. Check the label to compare amounts to the 300-400 mg/serving in most dairy or fortified soy versions.
  Other plant sources of calcium include leafy greens and almonds, but in lesser amounts than those foods listed above.
5. Protein Pointers:
  Consume a variety of protein sources over the day and day-to-day. There is no need to 'match' protein sources based on their protein building block (amino acid) content at each meal as we previously believed; our bodies can put together the puzzle of amino acids over the whole day.
  Legumes, like beans, split peas, peanuts and lentils are a great plant source of protein and minerals (like iron) plus fiber. Soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, soy 'meat' alternatives, black beans, dal, peanut butter, hummus, lentils and a host of other legumes are good choices. Add legumes slowly to your diet to help your digestive tract to adapt to them over time without bloating; overzealous consumption of legumes will wreak havoc on a digestive system not yet used to them. Tofu, lentils and split peas are better tolerated than most other beans.
  Eggs and dairy foods contain protein as well. Don't count on your glass of milk or cup of yogurt for iron, though; they are poor sources of that mineral. Read the section here on iron nutrition to make sure you cover your bases.


Eating on Campus

Whether you’d like to try out the idea of a plant-based meal or are already following a vegetarian lifestyle, vegetarian foods are readily available on campus at each meal. All major dining halls have a rotating menu of vegetarian entrees. Check out weekly menus for such items as vegan enchiladas, tofu & broccoli stir-fry with peanut sauce, black beans and rice or tempeh parmesan.

In addition to the rotating menu, look for these standard items:

  In Grab'n'Go refrigerators: two brands of calcium-fortified soy milk, two flavors of soy smoothies, sushi, packaged hummus and assorted yogurts.
  On salad bars: cubed tofu; a rotation of legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas, lentil salad; a rotation of cheeses including low-fat cottage cheese; hard cooked eggs and a variety of vegetables.
  On the grill: veggie burgers, vegetarian stir-fry sub, tofu stir-fry, grilled cheese. You may ask to have your order cooked on an induction burner if you are concerned about your food being prepared on the same grill as animal proteins.
  Sandwiches: eggplant parmesan sub, cheese sandwiches, falafel with tahini on pita, peanut butter, assorted wrap sandwiches like the Phi Beta Kappa Wrapper (Greek salad) or tempeh fajita wrap. Make your own sandwich at your seat by grabbing some pita and filling it with salad or hummus.
  Soups: a variety of vegetarian soups are served such as Black Bean, Vegetarian Cream of Broccoli and Vegetarian Garden Vegetable.
  Whole grains: in addition to regular pasta, cereals, breads and bakery products, watch menus for brown rice, whole grain breads and bagels, and whole grain cereals.