How to be a healthy vegetarian

Plant-based eating is having a moment. Along with the rise in its popularity for its undisputed health benefits have come a slew of protein alternatives and snacks – as a vegetarian you’ve never had so much choice before. However, while the protein or seed bars, vegetable chips and other easy on-the-go munchies may tick the meat-free box, if you’re indulging in them you are missing out on the benefits of non-processed foods that true vegetarianism is based on. Just take a look on the packaging and you’ll see a list of plenty of ingredients that should trigger warning signs. Even that dried mango you love after your workout is laced with extra sugar and sulphates. Canned beans and salted nuts are also often loaded with sodium. Eat clean!

Your reasons for turning to vegetarianism may be more about your wish to be lean and healthy than your love for animals, so it can be frustrating when you don’t see the results on the scale. A common reason is that many vegetarians turn to carbs in the forms of breads and pasta when they turn off meat. These foods can certainly form part of your diet, but the key to being a healthy vegetarian lies in getting your portion sizes, not just the content on your plate right. So sure, have a touch of pasta but two thirds of your plate should still be dedicated to vegetables.

Again, you don’t need huge volumes of protein in your diet – it’s a myth. There are plenty of sources of plant-based protein (lentils, whole soy, peanut butter, quinoa, black or red kidney beans, chickpeas and peas), but even so you need much less of it than you think. Most healthy individuals need about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per meal. Switching out meat for these proteins is very doable, but remember you still need to ensure that you get enough iron by eating dark leafy greens as well as beans, barley and oats.

And then there’s the weighty issue of fats. Other staples that vegetarians rely on such as nuts, olives and avocado are high in fat. Although considered to be “good fats” they should still be consumed in moderate amounts if you want to keep your waistline in check. The bottom line is that if you eat too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you'll gain weight.

We asked dietician Jessica Kotlowitz (www.thegreendietician.co.za) to highlight the three biggest diet issues she sees with her clients who eat plant-based meals:

#1 Too many processed foods

Just because something is vegan/vegetarian, it doesn't mean it is healthy or low in calories. That vegan ice cream that you think is healthy, may have just as much sugar, saturated fat and calories as the dairy-based version. Stick to whole, unprocessed foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole-grains) at least 80% of the time and use processed foods as "treats" once or twice a week rather than every day staples.

#2 Too much of a focus on sugar or foods high in refined carbohydrates

Lots of plant-based eaters rely heavily on pastas, rice, bread, etc. in order to make up the bulk of their meals. Starches form part of a healthy balanced diet but avoid highly processed/ refined carbohydrate foods like pasta, white bread, breakfast cereals, pastries, etc. Rather stick to starchy vegetables (like potatoes, sweet potatoes, mielies and butternut) and whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, oats and barley) as your sources of carbohydrates. Remember that if you are aiming to lose weight, you should fill up on lower calorie density foods like fresh vegetables and fruits and keep your starchy foods as a side dish rather than a main.

#3 Too much fat or high-fat plant foods

Although healthy, they can also limit your weight loss efforts. If you find yourself adding lots of seeds, nuts, nut butter, tahini, hummus, olives, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado to your meals and snacks, this may be one of the reasons you are struggling to find weight balance on a plant-based diet. Limit your nuts/ seeds to 1x 30g serving per day and choose 1 added plant fat at each meal/ snack in order to ensure balanced meals without adding too many calories.

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