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The Most Common Food Challenges for Vegetarians

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There is no doubt that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is good you. But for vegetarians in a meat-loving nation, a diet made up almost exclusively of fresh produce presents a number of challenges. Below are the most common challenges vegetarians face and tips to overcome them.

The Challenge: Variety

As a vegetarian, it's easy to get into a habit of eating the same veg-friendly foods. This can lead to boring meals and a lack of nutrient variety. Similar to meat eaters, vegetarians still need a combination of fruits and veggies, protein, carbs, and healthy fat at every meal. A plain green salad isn't going to cut it every day.

The Solution: Mix up your meals with more than basic fruits and veggies. Stock your kitchen with canned beans, low-fat milk and yogurt, eggs, tofu, peanut butter, and whole wheat bread, rice, and pasta. Check out our recipe library for some healthy meal ideas.

The Challenge: Eating Out

While some restaurants are entirely vegetarian or have a separate menu for vegetarians, many fall short and only offer one or two vegetarian options. They often default to salads or offer unappealing and unhealthy vegetarian options (fried veggies, fried spring rolls), making eating out no fun.

The Solution: Read the restaurant menu online before going out. If you see something you like that has meat, then substitute the meat for beans, lentils, or tofu. A few great options are Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican foods which rely heavily on soy products, veggies, and legumes

The Challenge: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These heart-healthy fats play an important role in reducing heart disease, lowering blood pressure, boosting brain function, and alleviating joint pain. Fatty fish is the main source for omega-3s. If you're not eating fish, you're likely deficient in this nutrient. Read "The Complete Guide to Omega Fatty Acids" for more information.

The Solution: Try adding a fish oil supplement to your diet. You'll need something with at least 1 g of DHA + EPA, such as Nordic Naturals. Other great sources of omega-3s include ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, soy beans, edamame, walnuts, and wheat germ.

The Challenge: Lean Proteins

Protein is essential for immunity and muscle building. Plant and dairy products provide less protein per ounce compared to meat, plus plant-based proteins (with the exception of soy beans) are also incomplete, meaning that they are missing one or more essential amino acids. Worse still, many meat-replacement products (veggie burgers, nuggets, hot dogs) have high levels of preservatives and artificial colors and flavors.

The Solution: Eat complete proteins like eggs, low-fat dairy products, and soy foods (tofu, tempeh, soymilk, soy protein, soy nuts, and edamame) at least once a day. Another way to improve your diet is to make complete protein food combinations. A few great choices include rice and beans or lentils, hummus with pita, peanut butter with whole wheat bread, cereal with milk, and chili with cheese.

The Challenge: Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found abundantly in animal products and scarcely in plant foods. It's necessary for red blood cell formation, neurological function, DNA synthesis, and energy production.

The Solution: Eat fortified cereals, vegetarian animal proteins such as low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs daily. You can also select a multivitamin that has 50 - 100 percent of the daily recommended value.

The Challenge: Iron

Iron is involved in delivering oxygen to cells, respiration, and energy metabolism, synthesis of collagen and neurotransmitters, and maintaining proper immune function. Iron is found in high amounts in meat, but not as much in vegetables. So vegetarians need to make the extra effort to include plenty of iron-rich foods in their diets.

The Solution: Incorporate iron-rich foods such as beans, fortified cereal, spinach, prune juice, and tofu into your diet at least twice a day. Research has shown that vitamin C can help increase iron absorption, so combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruit, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and strawberries. Also check that your multivitamin has at least 10 mg of iron.

Share your vegetarian tips in the comments below.

Tags: Health, Food