The thing about vegetarianism that
I’m not a fan of is the focus on foods that ‘cannot’ be eaten. I understand the moral and religious confusion that is binding you to stay away from meat and meat products, but why the focus on the ‘cannot’ or ‘should not‘? Why not focus on the ‘can be‘ and ‘should be’ ? In other words, if you are a vegetarian you have a list of stuff that you don’t eat. But do you have a list of stuff that you should eat? Why not? Why do I hear “I don’t eat chicken ‘cos I’m vegetarian” a lot and never hear “I eat fermented dairy and spinach everyday ‘cos I’m vegetarian”?
You see my point? Why is the glass always half empty and not half full?
What is an optimal vegetarian diet?
Nutrition is nothing more than fueling yourself with nutrients. While there are moral, religious and preferential winds that influence one’s nutritional path, a good diet (and by that I mean the food you eat on a daily basis for any significant amount of time) should focus more on ‘what is needed’ than on ‘what shouldn’t be eaten’. Talking about the vegetarian diet, if you have made the choice (or have been forced to make the choice, as in most cases) to remove meat and meat products from your diet, you better find a nutritionally equivalent if you desire to live without nutritional deficiencies.
In the case of the current Indian vegetarian diet (which is possibly the only case where people are born as vegetarians and have a really hard time even considering starting to eat meat or even eggs for that matter), a replacement does exist – grains. While grains fill in the gaps (physically) and calorically, they are in no way nutritionally equivalent to meat, seafood and eggs.
Make no mistake – I’m not even hinting that all meat inclusive diets are optimal or even marginally superior to vegetarian diets. Enough junk meat and meat products are available and most people find themselves eating plenty of crappy meat/meat products that health and nutrition are not anywhere close. But when one does make an attempt to start eating real food, the vegetarians face more of a challenge than the rest.
And if you’re wondering, this applies to me too. I live in India now which is more of a vegetarian society than anything else. Even meat eaters (affectionately called “NV” or non-vigitarians) are nothing more than vegetarians who eat a little meat. That and the fact that quality meat is not easily available, forces me to eat a vegetarian diet for the most part.
So then the question is – what is an optimal vegetarian diet? And, not surprisingly, the answer to this question is the same as for the question – what is an optimal diet? An optimal diet (vegetarian or not) is one that provides the consumer with all the nutrients required for optimal functioning.
Focusing on the half that is full
All that said, an optimal vegetarian diet should…
- Include plenty of vegetables, especially spinach and other greens since they are abundant in Vitamin K, Vitamin A and magnesium. While this is a rule that applies to both vegetarians and meat eaters alike, it needs to be more prominent in a vegetarian diet for the reason that since most vegetarian diets are dominated by grains, vegetables are almost non-existent. Most folks tend to eat a meal of rice/wheat with some form gravy and a tiny bit of vegetables and end up neglecting vegetables. Read this article about how the Indian vegetarian diet contains no vegetables!
- Include a significant amount of fermented foods, especially dairy due to their richness in Vitamin B12. Fermented foods help by introducing beneficial bacteria into our gut (probiotics) and adding in such bacteria has shown to be extremely beneficial to health. Relief from lactose intolerance, protection against colon cancer, reduction in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and urinogenital infection severity and frequency are some of the benefits. Also, vitamins available in foods are more readily available when the gut contains a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria. Whole milk yogurt/curd, natural aged cheeses, kefir, natto and tempeh are excellent choices for fermented vegetarian foods (provided they are made from top quality milk/soy beans).
- Be rich in saturated fat. If you’re concerned/confused about saturated fat and its health consequences, read my article The Saturated Fat Scam which talks in length about why saturated fat isn’t harmful but abundantly healthy. Ghee, butter, coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut in any other form are foods that feature right at the top of the list of healthiest foods.
- Include whole eggs. I’ve said this a million times and I will say it again – eggs are as awesome as awesome can get from a health perspective. Egg yolks are one of the healthiest foods anyone (especially vegetarians) can eat. Eggs yolks contain choline which is extremely critical for the body’s proper functioning, lutein which saves eyesight, contains essential fatty acids and healthy dose of cholesterol which, again, is a substance that is absolutely required for the body to function smoothly. Read this article by Arvind Ashok – Eat that yolk! – that talks plenty more about why you should eat whole eggs. And sorry, while the lack of protein due to an egg-less diet can be compensated for in many ways, I don’t have a nutritional substitute for eggs (especially yolks).
- Supplement with fish oil. Fish oil is magic! It is rich in EPA & DHA (the important omega 3 fatty acids that you don’t get from flax seeds or walnuts) and Vitamins A and D and has health benefits ranging from protecting against cardiovascular diseases to protection against cancer to much improved joint health to protection against alzheimer’s and much more. I’ve written about this in the past and you can read this article to understand how beneficial fish oil truly is. While it is not in anyway a supplement, from a vegetarian’s perspective, it is best considered a medicine and gulped!
- Obviously be devoid of allergens like gluten, industrially processed vegetable and seeds oils, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and sugars.
- Obviously not be dependent on nutritionally inferior foods like grains.
So what might such a vegetarian diet look like?
Sample meal plan
For someone who is ~ 70 kg the following should satisfy pretty much all nutritional needs.
- 1 cup whole milk (maybe coffee/tea) with 1 tsp sugar/honey
- 2-3 idlies/dosas (or idiyappam or 1 cup poha/aval/white rice) with 3-4 tbls coconut chutney and 2 tsp ghee
- 2-3 whole eggs with 30g cheese and 1 cup vegetables (Scrambled, omelet, sunny side up, baked, boiled, curry etc etc!)
- 2 cups vegetables cooked in 1tbls coconut oil or ghee or butter
- 1 cup sambar or rasam or daal
- 2 cups raw vegetables topped with 2 tsp olive oil/sesame oil (i.e. non lettuce real salad)
- 2 cups vegetables cooked in 1tbls coconut oil or ghee or butter
- 1 cup daal or beans or pulses pressure cooked with simple vegetables, without oil and topped with 1-2 tsp olive oil/sesame oil
- 1 cup horsegram upma or sprouted pulses toasted with shredded coconut
- 1 cup whole milk yogurt or raita
- 1 medium fruit or a couple of dates or a square of dark chocolate.
Firstly, snacks are unnecessary unless you’re actually trying to gain some weight. So snack only when absolutely required. That means, don’t look for something to munch just ‘cos you have nothing else to do. Snack if you’re unusually hungry between two meals or realize the next meal is too far away. Here are some awesome snack options which will keep you full and satisfied physically and nutritionally.
- 2 cups mixed vegetable raita (1 cup raw cut mixed vegetables like cucumber, carrot, spinach, green mango etc + 1 cup whole milk yogurt + seasonings
- 1 tender coconut or 1 cup salt lassi/lassi and a small fruit
- Fruit & veg bowl – Cut up avocado, raw green mango, onions, carrots, banana stem & tomato. Top with some olive oil, lemon juice, salt and spice.
- Flavored paneer cubes – Mix up a bunch of spices you like and toss the cubed paneer (like a dry rub) and pan fry using ghee for 2-3 min per side.
- Mix up 10-15 chopped nuts, couple tablespoons of fresh shredded coconut, a tablespoon of raisins, pinch of salt and pepper
- 30-40g cheese/tempeh with a cup of fresh fruit
Note: This is NOT a fat loss diet. This is meant to fix you health by fixing your gut and once you’re able to do that, well, fat loss is just a side effect of that good health you just achieved!
And just so we’re clear
- 1 cup = 240 ml. Anytime someone tells me ‘1 cup vegetables’ they’re talking about a cup so small you can fit in like one pea and anytime (the same) someone says ‘1 cup rice’ they’re talking about a barrel so big you can easily fit in a truck! So FYI, 1 cup = 240 ml irrespective of what is in it!
- If you weigh more or less, adjust accordingly.
- If fat loss is the goal, eat starch only during the meal that is immediately post workout. On other meals, stick to vegetables, cheese, milk/yogurt, lentils and fruit and stop eating well before you’re full. The best foods to pull out of this plan (when looking to lose fat) are snacks, rice and fruit in that order.
- If you feel starved, eat more of the good stuff. Stay away from starch when you don’t need it.
- Depending on what your current nutritional deficiencies are and what diseases you suffer from presently, you will need different amounts of different foods. It is on you to figure that out.
So what do you think? Is this a template something you can stick to (80% of the time) for a lifetime? Are there more things you’d like on here? What else stops you from eating real food? Talk to me in the comments section!
Stay sane. Stay patient. Don’t be greedy for weight loss. Focus on food quality and you’ll give yourself the gift of lifelong health and fitness.