In early civilizations, skipping the bison meat at dinner may have led to poor nutrition. These days, however, humans have access to an array of healthful food options and don't need to eat animal flesh to thrive. On the contrary, the vegetarian lifestyle is linked to better weight management and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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The Protein Myth
Meat is hailed for protein content, but most Americans eat more protein than they need each day. Furthermore, this nutrient is hardly scarce in plant foods: Beans, peas, tofu and nuts will all help you meet your daily quota. Even grains such as rice, corn and quinoa contain protein. While most plant proteins -- with the exception of quinoa and soy -- don't contain all essential amino acids, eating a variety of foods throughout the day will ensure that you get the full range of nutrients. For optimal health, 10 percent to 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from protein.
Meat is often rich in iron, which you need to carry oxygen through your bloodstream. You can also get iron from lentils, tofu, nuts and broccoli, however. In fact, vegetarians in Western cultures typically get as much iron as meat eaters, according to Harvard Health Publications. Iron in plant foods is the nonheme variety, which is harder for your body to absorb. But consuming vitamin C along with iron-rich foods will greatly increase bioavailability. For optimal iron absorption, squeeze some lemon juice onto your plate or include vitamin C-rich foods such as bell pepper in your meal.
Vitamin B-12 isn't found in plant foods, and you need small amounts of this nutrient for healthy nerves and blood cells. You can get enough vitamin B-12 from eggs and dairy without ever touching meat, however. Even vegans can get vitamin B-12 by eating nutritional yeast as well as fortified products, such as certain breakfast cereals.
By the Guidelines
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate system offers recommendations for healthy eating, and you can easily meet them on a vegetarian diet. According to the guidelines, half of each plate at mealtime should be filled with fruits and vegetables, and the other half should be split between grains and protein. The guidelines also recommend three servings of dairy per day, although soy milk is an acceptable alternative. By following this system, you can build a healthy, balanced diet that meets all nutritional needs -- regardless of meat intake.