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Replacing protein and nutrients from meat

Vegetarians have the same nutritional needs than everyone else.

With animal products out of the menu, other sources must supply the quality protein, iron and other nutrients for a vegetarian diet.

What foods can replace the protein and other nutrients from meat?

The answer to this question is a combination of beans, pulses, cereals, and nuts, if you are a strict vegetarian.

Beans and pulses have almost the same protein to weight ratio than meat. Their protein is not high quality -meaning it doesn't provide the full range of amino acids humans need to obtain from food as meat does- and you should always have some cereal at the same time, as the combination cereal+beans will provide you with high quality protein, i.e. lentil soup+a side of rice, baked beans on toast. Soy is the one that has the most complete protein from all the beans - very close to meat. That is why soy, tofu and all soy products are very popular with vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarians can also count on milk as source of proteins.

If you weren’t having beans regularly, don’t jump into having large quantities daily, rather increase your intake over a few weeks to give your body time to adapt, increasing enzyme production and the good bacteria, preventing cramps, gases and heavy digestions.

Seeds and Nuts are also protein rich foods, but also need some addition to become high quality. The traditional peanut butter sandwich has it all. Nuts and seeds are also high in fat - the good ones, but very high - so you cannot really have them in large quantities. Apart from PB&J, sprinkle them on salads and other food, mixed with dried fruit as trail mix, or with cereals as granola bars, or simply a bunch of nuts as a snack.

Vegetarians are more prone to anemia because vegetables don't supply iron in the same proportion and also because it is more difficult for the organism to assimilate this form of iron -the bioavailability is less for vegetal iron. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption, so have some orange juice with your meals or some vegetables high in vitamin C, like broccoli.

Try to avoid having tea or coffee with the meal -both prevent the absorption of iron- or immediately after; have tea or coffee 20-30 minutes after. Herbal teas have this effect, too. The green colored herbal teas, like mint or nettle, particularly nettle, are supposed to boost your mineral intake. It’s only your omnivorous friends who should abstain of mixing them with meat, but I would follow the rule of waiting 20 minutes, giving yourself double chance of keeping healthy levels of iron.

You should also eat green leafy vegetables to supply the full spectrum of vitamins from the B group. There is one B vitamin in particular easy to obtain from meat but difficult to get from vegetables and lack of it also makes you prone to anemia. Green, leafy vegetables will help you to get enough of this. If you are ovo-lacto-vegetarian, you can relax a little as eggs will supply this particular vitamin.

Be adventurous with your cereals and try new ones -millet, for instance, has a higher iron content than wheat. You can have it as cereal flakes for breakfast.

Quinoa rice is not a cereal -really, a seed- but it could make a valuable contribution to your vegetarian diet as it is rich in iron and rich in protein of a reasonable high quality and it also has vitamins of the B group. You can use it instead of rice in many dishes, or you can try mixing quinoa and rice. Adding some quinoa would enrich a vegetable soup.

The secret is wise combination of food. Try a nut butter sandwich on Ezequiel bread, made from sprouted wheat, pulses and seeds –this kind of bread supplies B vitamins, iron and it is protein rich in itself. Another combination supplying a good balance of nutrients would be almond butter, celery and apple slices in sandwich form or, better, in smoothie form with a milk or soy milk base. Hummus and pita bread or wise dips can make other great combination, add a nut sprinkled salad.

As vegetables go, seaweed is great. Kombu will help to soften and make more digestible beans and pulses in soup form. Nori –the one used in sushi- is as high in nutrients as green leafy vegetables. Vegetarian sushi can be a great snack. Some people swear by green and blue algae, wheatgrass in frozen juice form; be aware a few people have found all this three to be too strong for their systems.

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