How to go Meatless and Stay Healthy

A vegetarian diet can be healthy and easy — if you do it right.

How to stay a vegetarian and stay healthyWhen you go away to college and leave behind home-cooked meals, there’s no one forcing you to eat a healthy, balanced diet. College dining halls present a challenge for all students, but vegetarians can have a particularly hard time getting all the necessary nutrients while at school, especially with the limited offerings at many slop, er, dining halls.

Vegetarianism can be a very healthy lifestyle choice. Complete vegetarian diets provide all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and fats a person needs, and can be filling without too many calories. They can also be cheaper than diets including meat — an important consideration for poor college students paying for their own food.

Disease prevention is another benefit of vegetarian diets — which generally include less saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein than non-vegetarian diets. Lower incidences of high blood pressure and certain types of cancer have been found in vegetarians.

Vegetarian Food PyramidBut not all vegetarian diets are healthy. “Vegetarian is not synonymous with good health,” says Jean Bigaouette, a nutritionist in Albany, NY. Bigaouette stresses that being a healthy vegetarian means more than not eating meat.

“First, a college student needs to make himself aware of what his nutritional needs are,” Bigaouette says. The American Dietetic Association provides essential information for planning a balanced diet.

Vegetarians need to make substitutions for animal proteins with foods of similar nutritional value, such as legumes (beans and peas, for example) and tofu. Check out the Vegetarian Food Pyramid on the left. As the picture states, Whole grain, bread, cereal, pasta and rice are very healthy and Vegetable fats and oils, sweets and salt should be consumed very sparingly.

The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is variety,” says Sandra Neil, a registered dietician with the Hudson Valley Dietetic Association. “A wide variety of vegetables, including beans in particular, help to ensure a nice complement of secondary proteins including legumes, grains, and whole beans.”

Vegetarian or not, everyone should eat three to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Vegetarians can easily consume sufficient calories by eating starches. However, obtaining the necessary amount of protein each day is an important concern, and sometimes vegetarians must specifically seek out non-meat protein sources. Vegetarian protein sources include beans, tofu and other soy products, nuts, and seeds. Bigaouette suggests 50 grams of protein each day for females and 70 grams for males.

Vegetarians should also be careful to get the right combination of vitamins and minerals. Sometimes a supplement — one containing Vitamin B12, for example — is necessary for a balanced diet, especially for vegans (vegetarians who eat only plant foods).

“Anyone thinking about a vegetarian diet might want to get on board with a dietician,” Neil suggests. This will take the guesswork out of combining the right foods for good nutrition. Most colleges have a dietician or nutritionist on staff, so you shouldn’t have to pay for a consultation.

Vegetarian diets can be great ways to remain healthy while at college, especially if you can maintain a balanced diet. Many colleges now have vegetarian options in their dining halls, so a vegetarian diet can be an adventure — if you avoid easy fallback options like rice and pasta.

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All you vegetarians out there — are you eating the right foods for a healthy, balanced diet? Here are some suggestions for some of the best foods you can choose to ensure that your diet is on the mark.

    * Soy products such as tofu, tofu cheese, soymilk, soy cheese, or soy yogurt
    * Beans — all varieties including black, pinto, garbanzo, and kidney
    * Veggie burgers — a tasty alternative to America’s favorite hamburger
    * Cereals, especially those fortified with nutrients such as iron
    * Pasta, rice, breads
    * Green leafy vegetables
    * A variety of fresh fruits
    * Nuts, including peanut butter (a great source of protein)
    * Milk, cheese, and other dairy products (for non-vegans)
    * Eggs