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Vegetarian and Vegan Diet (cont.)

Medical Editor:

How do I develop a vegetarian or vegan diet plan for myself?

The first thing to decide is if you are going to consume any source of animal foods. There really is no one "right" way to do this. You can have cheese but no milk; or you may choose poultry but no beef. You want to make your diet plan fit your lifestyle and include the foods that you enjoy consuming. You will get some of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet even if you only consume one or two vegetarian meals per week. In fact, starting out by slowly adding vegetarian meals may make the transition easier if you are not used to this way of eating.

Here are some keys to balancing your meals.


Protein is an essential nutrient that is needed for growth, immune function, and muscle mass. Protein is made up of amino acids. There are some amino acids that our bodies can make and others that must be supplied from our diet. Protein is the only nutrient that will increase your satiety; meaning that you will stay full in between meals. This makes protein an integral part of any weight loss plan.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight each day. To determine your need, use this calculation:

  1. Your body weight in pounds divided by 2.2 = ________ your body weight in kg
  2. Your body weight in kg times 0.8 = ________ grams of protein per day

Animal foods tend to be the highest source of protein in our diets and can provide all the amino acids that we need, making it a complete protein. Every ounce of an animal food provides 7 grams of protein and varying amounts of fat. Seafood and poultry provide the lowest amount of fat per serving and therefore the lowest number of calories per serving. If you are consuming any meat, poultry, or seafood, you can use a deck of cards as a guideline for the amount that you are consuming. A piece of meat that is the size of a deck of cards is approximately 3 oz with 21 grams of protein. The amount that you eat will depend on the amount of calories that you are allowed to consume and any other sources of calories that you are consuming. You only need to use the deck of cards as a guideline to determine what a 3 oz serving looks like. One egg and 1 ounce of cheese (typically one slice) are considered one serving.

Plant foods also provide protein, along with fiber and some vitamins and minerals that you won't find in animal foods. The one limitation to these is that they are not considered complete proteins because they do not provide all of the necessary amino acids. The exceptions to this are soybeans and quinoa, which are considered complete proteins. Beans, seeds, nuts, and grains are excellent sources of protein. The way to make them complete proteins is to combine them. A very popular dish that takes two incomplete proteins and makes a complete one is rice and beans.

In America, vegan diets are commonly lower in protein in comparison to the standard American diet. But it is possible to consume a vegan diet and reach your recommended amount of protein. Two to three servings of protein-rich foods each day are usually enough to meet the daily needs of most adults. One serving is considered to be ½ cup of cooked dried beans, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or 1 ounce of nuts.

The protein content of some common vegan foods is as follows:

Food Amount Protein
Almond butter 2 tbsp 5 g
Almonds ¼ cup 8 g
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 15 g
Black-eyed peas, cooked 1 cup 11 g
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 4 g
Brown rice, cooked 1 cup 5 g
Bulgar, cooked 1 cup 6 g
Cashews ¼ cup 5 g
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 12 g
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 13 g
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 18 g
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 10 g
Peanut butter 2 tbsp 8 g
Peas, cooked 1 cup 9 g
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 12 g
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 9 g
Seitan 3 oz 31 g
Soy milk 1 cup 7 g
Soy yogurt, plain 6 oz 6 g
Soybeans, cooked 1 cup 29 g
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 5 g
Sunflower seeds ¼ cup 6 g
Tempeh 1 cup 41 g
Tofu, firm 4 oz 11 g
Tofu, regular 4 oz 9 g
Whole wheat bread Two slices 5 g

You may not be familiar with all of these foods if you are just starting out. Take some time to do some research and experiment with recipes. Here is some information about three of the most popular sources of protein.

Tofu: Tofu is made by treating soybean milk with coagulants. It is also known as soybean curd and resembles cheese. It has a high protein content so it can be used as the "meat" source for a meal. Tofu itself is bland, but it absorbs flavors very well, so it's best prepared with flavorful spices or marinades. There are soft, firm, and extra firm varieties. The soft tofu is smoother and lower in fat and is best used in sauces, salad dressings, and desserts. The firm and extra firm tofu are best used in grilling, baking, and stir-frying.

Tempeh: Tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay or tem-pā) is made by fermenting soybeans with a rhizopus. It can be made of all soy or combined with grains, seeds, and legumes. It has a nutty taste and a firm, tender, and chewy texture. Tempeh's high protein content makes it an excellent substitute for meat. High-quality tempeh slices or cubes easily without crumbling. Look for tempeh that is covered with a thin whitish bloom. While it may have a few black or grayish spots, it should have no evidence of pink, yellow, or blue coloration as this indicates that it has become overly fermented. Like tofu, it absorbs the flavors of spices and marinades.

Quinoa: Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a seed that is related to leafy green vegetables. It's often used as a grain, but unlike grains, it is considered a complete protein source. This means that it can also replace meat as a source of protein in your meal. It also provides fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and is gluten-free. It needs to be rinsed before cooking to remove the bitter coating substance that protects it from birds and insects. You can buy products that have already had this removed. Many people recommend that you presoak quinoa for 15 to 30 minutes to bring out the nutty flavor and remove the bitter flavor. To do this, you take 1 ½ cups of cold water and add 1 cup of quinoa to it and allow it to soak and then drain the water off. When you don't have time to soak it, you can use hot water and soak it for five minutes and then rinse a couple of times. You cook it in water that can either be two or three parts water for one part quinoa. The seeds swell to about two to four times their original size. Bring it to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down to simmer and cook for 20 minutes. When you remove it from the heat, allow it to sit with the cover on for five minutes and then fluff with a fork. You will see the seeds are a bit transparent and display a little white thread that curls around them. There are lots of great recipes that you can use this with, so experiment and enjoy!


The goal for any diet is to consume a balance of foods that provide your body with all of the nutrients that it needs to function optimally. The Food Guide Pyramid was developed to show the amount and type of foods to consume. A serving is a standard measurement, not the amount that you actually consume, which is called a portion. For example, one serving of bread is one slice, and your portion may be two slices, which means that you had two servings. If you want the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, you need to consume the foods that will provide these benefits. This means lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats. You can use the Food Guide Pyramid as a guideline for balancing your diet.


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