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Smart food choices for vegetarians on the go

Sarah Wassner Flynn is a New York City-based writer. She's contributed to magazines such as CosmoGIRL!, National Geographic Kids, Runner's World, Women's Health, Prevention and MetroSports New York. She is also the author of The Book of ...

Fit food for vegetarians

Giving up meat may give you a big health boost, but the lack of iron, protein, and other essential vitamins and minerals can cause you to fall flat while exercising. Here are some tips to keep your diet balanced and keep you fabulously fit!

Woman Shopping for VegetablesPerhaps you are an animal lover. Maybe you don't like the taste of meat, or perhaps you are vegetarian just for the health benefits. Whatever the reason you have opted to eliminate meat (or, in some cases, all animal products) from your diet, chances are you are reaping the benefits of vegetarian living. Many who choose to go meat-free say they feel great and have more energy than ever. However, if your vegetarian diet isn't delivering the right balance of nutrients, you could be feeling flat, especially if you are a vegetarian on the go.

WHAT YOU MAY BE MISSING

While some studies find that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, live about three years longer than carnivores, and have a lower risk of nearly every type of cancer, cutting out meat could put you at risk of a less than optimal diet. You may not be getting a sufficient amount of protein, iron, or calcium, all of which your muscles need to heal and recover after exercise.

Keep in mind that a serving of steak has up to 30 grams of protein, which is nearly half the recommended amount for a 150-pound woman. And if you avoid eggs, cheese, or chicken, you could be missing out on as much as 42 grams of the muscle-mending good stuff. An unbalanced vegetarian diet that skimps on iron and calcium can also leave you lightheaded and lethargic, not to mention more injury-prone due to brittle bones.

SMART SWAPS

The good news is that there are plenty of healthy and hearty substitutes for meat that can keep your protein, iron, and calcium levels up. For starters, you can get more than your fill of protein by eating whole grains, like brown rice or oatmeal. For an even better one-two protein punch, combine beans and grains (try adding vegetarian baked beans to brown rice, or mixing in lentils with spaghetti sauce served over whole-grain pasta).

To up your iron and calcium count, chow down on leafy green vegetables like kale and Swiss chard as well as broccoli and potatoes. Dark veggies contain both iron and calcium, so use them in a salad or steam them as a side dish. You should also consider goat cheese, which is rennet-free, easier to digest than cow milk cheeses, and a good source of calcium.

Lentils, mung beans, and kidney beans, are also excellent sources of both iron and protein. The same goes for soy products, which you can use as replacements for traditional meat-based dishes, like lasagna, or used to make vegetarian desserts. And because vitamin C significantly improves iron absorption, stock up on fruits and veggies like oranges, pineapples, strawberries, and green peppers.

OVERDO THE OMEGA 3's

Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is just as important as making sure you consume other key nutrients, like protein, calcium, and iron. Your intake of omega-3's, which have anti-inflammatory capabilities, can help speed up the healing of exercise-induced muscle tears. If you are okay with eating fish, opt for the fattiest fish to make sure you get enough of these "good for you" fats. Go for coldwater sorts like salmon, herring, and mackerel, or load up on other omega-3-rich foods like walnuts, cantaloupe, grape leaves, or cauliflower. You can also opt to pop supplements like chia seeds, fish oil, or flaxseed oil.

And any time you make an abrupt change to your diet, it's important to check in with a nutritionist or your health care provider to make sure you are eating an adequate amount of all of the minerals and vitamins you need to stay healthy and strong.

For more details on vegetarian living and delicious meat-free recipes, check out these links:

A vegetarian can love a carnivore, but what will they eat?

Vegetarian recipes that satisfy

Grilled vegetarian recipes

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