Understanding Vegetarian Diets

Preparing food for anyone who follows a restricted diet requires understanding the nature and limitations of that diet.Vegetarian diets present challenges because there are several types of vegetarianism.


A vegetarian diet is one consisting entirely or mostly of foods derived from plants. Most committed vegetarians fall into one of the categories listed below.

The vegan diet is the most restrictive form of vegetarianism.Vegans eat plant products only. All animal products,including dairy products and eggs, are off limits. Even foods that might sound safe are off limits to the strictest vegans. Examples of such foods include honey, because it comes from bees, and cane sugar, which may be refined with the use of animal products (more on this subject on p. 661).When preparing a vegetarian menu, the chef should keep in mind that a menu appropriate to a vegan diet has the broadest appeal because it can be eaten by all categories of vegetarians.

Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products in addition to plant products but will not eat other animal products.

Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs in addition to plant products. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy and egg products as well as plant products. Pesco-vegetarians eat fish and plant products but not meat or poultry. They may or may not eat dairy and egg products.

Vegetarianism may be based on strong ethical or moral beliefs or on health concerns. Naturally, the chef who cares for his or her customers is eager to respect these beliefs and concerns.Vegetarians may have chosen their diet based on deeply held ethical or religious beliefs and may be strongly dedicated to following their diet rigorously.

In addition, many people choose vegetarianism for health reasons.Vegetarian diets are usually low in fat and cholesterol and in addition are free of the hormones and drugs often used in the raising of meat animals. Environmental concerns also lead some people to vegetarianism. Producing plant foods requires fewer natural resources than raising meat animals. Economic factors are yet another consideration in that vegetables and grains are, on average, much less expensive than meat, poultry, and seafood. Finally, some people are occasional vegetarians simply because they enjoy the foods.


Because vegetarians eliminate major categories of foods from their diets, any nutrients obtained from animal products are lost and must be obtained from other foods. Refer to the Food Guide Pyramid on page 123. Note that although dairy products, meats, fish, and eggs do not form the largest portions of the pyramid, they form an important part. When those foods are eliminated, the pyramid must be rebuilt, as in Figure 20.1,in order to ensure adequate nutrition.


The subject of complete proteins and complementary proteins was introduced in Chapter 6 (see p. 121).Because this subject is so important for vegetarian diets,the subject is discussed in greater detail here.

The major nutritional concern of a vegetarian diet is getting enough protein. Dairy products, eggs, and fish supply adequate amounts of good-quality protein, but vegans must plan their diets carefully in order to get adequate protein. Some plant products, such as grains, nuts, and dried beans, contain proteins. Note that in the standard Food

Fats 2 servings

Oil, ^ mayonnaise, or soft margarine 1 tsp (5 mL)

Fruits 2 servings

Medium fruit 1 ^ Cut up or cooked fruit '/2 cup (125 mL) \ Fruit juice V2 cup (125 mL) Dried fruit V4 cup (60 mL)

Vegetables 4 servings

Cooked v e getables V2 cup (125 mL) Raw vegetables 1 cup (250 mL) Vegetable juice V$ cup (125 mL)

Legumes, nuts, and other protein-rich foods 5 servings

Cooke d b e a ns, pe as, or lentils V2 cup (125 mL) Tof u o r tempeh V2 cup (125 mL) N ut o r seed butter 2 tbsp (30 mL) N uts 1/4 cup (60 mL) Meat analog 1 oz (28 g)

Egg 1

Grains 6 servings

Br ead 1 slice Cooke d g rain or cereal V2 cup (125 mL) Ready-to-eat cereal 1 oz (28 g)

Guide Pyramid on page 123,dried beans and nuts are included in the meat group. How-ever,with the important exception of soybeans and soy products such as tofu,most of these protein foods, when eaten alone, are not adequate for human nutrition.

Proteins are long chains of smaller compounds called amino acids.There are, in all, 20 amino acids that, when joined in various combinations, make up over 100,000 proteins in the human body. Eleven of these amino acids can be made in the body, so it is not necessary to include them in the diet. All remaining nine amino acids must be included in the diet in order for the body to make all the proteins it needs.These are called essential amino acids.

Any food protein that contains all nine essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Proteins found in meat, poultry, seafood,milk and milk products, and eggs are complete proteins.

Some plant foods, especially dried legumes,grains, nuts, and seeds, contain incomplete proteins.This means that one or more of the essential amino acids is either missing or is not present in high enough concentration. Soybeans, quinoa, and amaranth are unusual among grains and legumes, because they contain complete proteins.

The key to getting enough protein in a plants-only diet is to eat, in the course of each day, a balance of these foods, so that amino acids missing from one of these foods is supplied by another one of them. Such proteins are called complementary proteins. For example,kidney beans are high in the amino acids isoleucine and lysine,but low in some of the others. Millet is low in lysine but high in the amino acids that kidney beans are missing. So if both kidney beans and millet are eaten during the day, all the essential amino acids are included in the diet.

Figure 20.1

Vegetarian food guide pyramid. Reprinted from Journal of the American Dietetic Program, Volume 103, Messina, Virginia, Melina, Vesanto, and Mangels, Ann Reed, "A new food guide for North American vegetarians," pages 771-775, Copyright 2003, with permission from American Dietetic Association.

Including Complementary Proteins in the Diet

Contrary to what you might think after reading the preceding discussion, you do not have to be a biochemist to prepare vegetarian menus. A basic understanding of what foods go together to supply complete proteins is the best place to start and will carry you a long way.


These 9 compounds are called Essential Amino Acids:










These 11 amino acids can be made by the body and so are called Nonessential Amino Acids, because it is not necessary to include them in the diet:




Aspartic acid


Glutamic acid






When the body manufactures proteins, it puts together a chain of amino acids using those it has available, like a factory assembling an appliance out of parts. If it finds that one of the parts—in this case, amino acids—is missing, it takes apart the partial protein it has already assembled and sends the parts back to the supply room—the bloodstream.

This means that if one amino acid is in short supply, it limits the usefulness of even the ones that are plentiful. An amino acid that is in short supply, thus limiting the usefulness of the others, is called a limiting amino acid.

The following pairings of food categories are the most useful complementary proteins for planning vegetarian diets:

Dried legumes plus grains Dried legumes plus seeds and nuts Grains plus milk products

The first two of these pairings are important in vegan diets.The third pairing can be included in the diets of lacto-vegetarians.

Examining the cultures and cuisines of other lands,we see that these complementary protein groupings have long been a part of the staple diet of peoples who have had limited supplies of meats.Think,for example, of the beans and corn tortillas (dried legumes plus grains) of Mexico and the rice and dal (also grains plus dried legumes) of India. People who have long relied on these foods have found tasty and varied ways to prepare them. Studying traditional vegetarian cuisines is a useful way to learn how to include these items in your own menus.

Other Nutrients

In addition to protein, other nutrients normally found in animal products must be supplied in other ways in vegetarian diets.

Vitamin B12. This vitamin is found only in animal foods, including milk and eggs. Vegans must obtain it from grain foods, such as breakfast cereals, that have been fortified with this vitamin, or else take vitamin supplements.Vegetarians who eat sufficient dairy products and eggs usually can get enough vitamin B12.

Vitamin D. This vitamin is found in vitamin D-fortified milk, and it is created in the skin on exposure to sunlight. A vegan or other vegetarian who doesn't get enough exposure to sunlight can get this nutrient from vitamin-fortified cereals or some soy beverages.

Calcium. Dairy products are rich in calcium, but vegans and other vegetarians who don't consume dairy products must get calcium from other sources, including green leafy vegetables and dried legumes. Calcium supplements or calcium-fortified beverages may be necessary in vegan diets.

Continue reading here: Menus For Vegetarian Diets

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