Learning About Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian eating styles are defined by eating patterns. The various patterns are distinguished by the foods excluded from the diet.

Types of Vegetarian Diets — Foods Excluded

  • Semi- or partial-vegetarian — Red meat
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian — Red meat, poultry, fish/seafood
  • Lacto-vegetarian — Red meat, poultry, fish/seafood, eggs
  • Vegan (total vegetarian) — Red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products (may exclude honey)
  • Macrobiotic — Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood, fish, processed foods (fish may be included in the diets of some macrobiotic vegetarians)


Most vegetarians start out by simply removing meat from their current diet, but to have a truly balanced nutritional profile, you will need to educate yourself and most likely explore new foods.
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One of misperceptions of vegetarian diets is that they are low in protein. A variety of plant foods contain protein. However, no single plant food provides a complete protein source. To meet daily protein needs, incomplete proteins should be combined and consumed either in the same meal or over the course of the day. It is easy when your energy intake is adequate, and you eat a wide variety of foods.

Dairy products and eggs are excellent sources of complete proteins for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians (LOV).

Natural Vegan Sources for Protein: whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
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At least 20% of total energy consumed by vegetarians should come from fat. Attention should be focused on intakes of the essential fatty acids. Linoleic acid is metabolized to arachidonic acid, which is an important component of cell membranes. Alpha linolenic acid is metabolized to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is vital for vision and neurological function.

Natural Vegan Sources for Fat: A primary source of linoleic acids is vegetable oil. Alpha linolenic acids can be found in flax seed, canola oil, walnuts, and soy products. The ratio of linoleic acid to α-linolenic acid should preferably be 5:1.7.
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Calcium and Vitamin D

Our bones contain large amounts of calcium, which helps to make them firm and rigid. Calcium is also needed for other tasks, including nerve and muscle function and blood clotting. To properly utilize calcium our body needs Vitamin D. While calcium is found in dark green leafy vegetables or tofu made with calcium sulfate and many other foods commonly eaten by vegans, natural sources for Vitamin D are not so well-known. All mushrooms contain some vitamin D. UV-treated portobello mushrooms are available from California retailer. However, even white button mushrooms can be treated at home with sunlight to boost vitamin D content. A study was done to determine amount of vitamin D produced by sun-exposed mushrooms. Variety of mushrooms (shiitake, enoki and white button mushrooms) as well as exposure on clear and overcast conditions were tested. All mushrooms were found to be reliable producers of vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol).

Natural Vegan Sources for Calcium: Vegans can get calcium with dark green leafy vegetables or calcium-set tofu.
Natural Vegan Sources for Vitamin D: Vegan source of vitamin D is mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light.
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Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is not produced by plants, fungi or animals. It is made by bacteria, although animals can accumulate it in tissues. Most commonly available form of vitamin B12 is cyanocobalamin, chemically treated form of vitamin B12 obtained from bacteria. It is a stable compound and is easily converted to an active form by the body. Vegetarian source of vitamin B12 are fortified foods and beverages, some multivitamins, and some several brands of nutritional yeast. Inactive analogs of vitamin B12 may be present in spirulina, seaweed, and fermented foods.
Vitamin B12 is very important, and its deficiency can result in serious and sometimes irreversible neurologic abnormalities. The body is able to store up vitamin B12 for a long period of time, you may not even notice that you’re deficient until a year or more after you’ve started a vegan diet. Older people should be getting enough vitamin B12, because the intrinsic factor, protein responsible for normal absorption of vitamin B12, diminishes with age.
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The predominant source of iron in plant-based foods is in the non-heme form, which is less bioavailable than the heme form found in animal sources such as meats. Because vegan diets only contain non-heme iron, vegans should be especially aware of foods that are high in iron and techniques that can promote iron absorption. Recommendations for iron for vegetarians (including vegans) may be as much as 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.

Natural Vegan Sources for Iron: Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron. Iron absorption is increased by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron.
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Eating Habits

Replacing processed omnivorous foods with processed plant-based foods helps to avoid animal-based products, but doesn’t always provide the necessary nutritional benefits. Only eating natural, whole, and non-processed foods is healthy.

Vegetarians need to consume more food because the caloric density of the food they’re eating is lower. Since eating the same products every day can be boring, variety is important in vegetarian diets from both, nutritional and psychological, well-being perspectives. The possibilities for vegetarians are endless because the diet itself encourages them to go beyond their habitual and familiar food choices and learn more about nutrition, cooking, and ethnic cuisines. Very often, becoming a vegetarian changes the way you look at food and, as a result, it expands your meal choices.

Dining out as a vegetarian can be a real challenge. It also presents an opportunity to be adventurous and experiment with choosing a well-balanced vegetarian meal from the menu or making healthy substitutions in different ethnic restaurants. There is no need to limit the diet to familiar foods like salads and nuts. Many world cuisines have wonderful traditional vegetarian dishes.

Know your diet well, and it will be easier to make requests when you dine with your non-vegetarian friends and family. Be courteous and alert your hosts about your food preferences at least a week in advance. Ask what they are planning to serve and offer a vegetarian alternative that is easy to make on the side. Bring your own food if you want to remove the stress from the host.

A common belief is that eating pre-prepared foods is easier and faster. In my opinion, to really take full advantage of the health benefits of being vegetarian, you have to learn how to cook.

Well-organized home cooking can be efficient. For example, many vegetables are better consumed raw or quickly cooked. Legumes and grains could be cooked in advance and stored in a refrigerator to be added to final dishes within minutes. Once you’ve mastered the herb and spice basics, you’ll be able to skillfully manipulate flavors to your taste. You will be able to cook more different dishes with the same local and seasonal ingredients.

Home Cooking for Vegetarians classes are designed to show you how learning about ethnic cuisines can help to expand vegetarian vocabulary. The first set is an introduction to the cuisines — Indian, Thai, and Mexican/Tex-Mex.

You will learn:

  • Basic knife skills to work with vegetables
  • Basic and ethnic cooking methods and tools
  • Common and ethnic vegetarian ingredients, including where to buy them in Austin or on-line
  • Create and adjust ethnic flavors to your individual taste
  • Wellness benefits of different ingredients and cooking methods
  • How to organize vegetarian cooking at home efficiently
  • Trusted and on-line sources to continue your culinary adventure

Eating habits are strong and changing them is challenging. The goal of this set of classes is to give you a tool for a structured culinary self-education. Easy and simple comes with knowledge and skill. Once you are armed, they’ll serve you forever. Happy learning and bon appétit!

Tropical Fruit Breakfast