Tofu is a good source of vegetarian protein.
Vegetarian diets are linked to better overall health and lower mortality rates, according to a study published in вЂњJAMA Internal MedicineвЂќ in June 2013. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol, meat-free diets reduce your risk of such chronic conditions as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension, as well as assist with weight maintenance, as reported in вЂњNutrition ReviewsвЂќ in 2006. If you've decided to go vegetarian for health or philosophical reasons, you have a wealth of options to choose from for your 100 percent meat-free diet.
Vegetables and Fruits
Ideally, fresh produce should be the centerpiece of a vegetarian diet. You have a cornucopia of choices for vegetables, from leafy greens to root vegetables to cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower. Try pureed vegetable soups, like butternut squash or carrot soup, to get vitamin A to support good vision. Stir-fry broccoli, mushrooms and red bell pepper for a colorful main dish that supplies more than your daily needs for antioxidant vitamin C and vitamin K, which supports healthy blood clotting. Fruits are also a mainstay of meat-free diets. Enjoy a banana-strawberry smoothie for breakfast or a between-meal snack, or satisfy your sweet tooth with an after-dinner cup of berries. Diets based on vegetables and fruits tend to be high in potassium, an electrolyte that helps balance fluids in your body and reduce risk of high blood pressure.
Your body needs daily protein to build and repair tissues and muscles. If you think you won't get enough protein on a 100 percent meat-free diet, consider the nutritional makeup of legumes. A cup of cooked black beans, for example, gives you over 15 grams of protein with no cholesterol and only 0.2 gram of saturated fat. Unlike meat, beans also supply dietary fiber, which helps keep you full and supports healthy digestion. A cup of black beans gives you 15 grams, which is more than half what women need daily and more than a third of what men require. Most plant sources of protein don't supply all the essential amino acids, so pair beans with brown rice or other grains to get complete protein. Foods made from soybeans like tofu and tempeh are complete sources of filling vegetarian protein that can be used in stir-fries and chili so you'll never miss the meat.
Nuts and Seeds
To reduce your risk of heart disease, most of the fats in your diet should come from unsaturated sources like nuts and seeds, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use your favorite nut or seed butter on whole grain toast for a filling breakfast or snack. If you're a lacto-vegetarian who eats dairy, chop some walnuts or almonds and toss into your Greek yogurt with orange slices. An ounce of sunflower seeds adds both 5 grams of protein and an appealing crunch to your dark, leafy greens. A handful of pistachios makes a filling snack to ward off the mid-afternoon munchies. Be sure to choose nuts and seeds without salt or flavorings to avoid adding excessive sodium or sugar to your diet.
Grains are another staple of meat-free diets, filled with fiber and B vitamins, which support your nervous system and help your body process the energy it gets from food. A breakfast of steel-cut oats made with soymilk and mixed with chopped apple and pecans will keep you going until lunch. Whole-wheat pita bread served with hummus and veggies provides a satisfying lunch or snack. Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that, like meat, is a complete protein - that means it gives you all the essential amino acids you need to build muscle and tissue. Try this gluten-free grain with cranberries, walnuts and a splash of olive oil for a hearty lunch or side dish, or mix it with chickpeas, parsley, tomatoes, garlic and lemon juice for a nutrient-dense take on tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad.
It can be challenging to get a few specific nutrients on a totally meat-free diet. Vitamin B-12, for instance, comes primarily from animal sources like meat, dairy and eggs, but is also found in fortified foods. A deficiency can cause weakness and fatigue. Vitamin D, which helps you absorb calcium for strong bones, is also found mostly in animal foods, but you can spend a little time outdoors in the sun to get your daily boost of this nutrient. If you decide to go vegan and don't eat any animal foods at all, your doctor may suggest that you supplement to round out your nutritional profile.