If you're following a vegetarian diet, it's important to understand how to eat a well-balanced variety of foods in order to achieve optimal health. Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization, determined that it was time to update their 1997 version of the Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid. This updated version combines both vegetarian and vegan diets in one pyramid, because the diets are pretty similar.
Why Create the Pyramid?
Although the United States Department of Agriculture's MyPlate program is a wonderful tool to help the general population choose healthier fare, the Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid takes it a step further by including specific plant-based foods and the recommended servings for each. "We have seen growing interest in following a plant-based diet," says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways. "Vegetarian eating is at an all-time high, and it's essential for people to realize that vegetarian diets are more than just cutting out meat. Balancing and planning are important."
Nutrients of Concern
Nutrient deficiencies are more likely when you eliminate a specific food or foods from your diet. However, by choosing a wide variety of foods (even those from plants!) it is less likely this will happen. The following nutrients are of special concern to those following a vegetarian or vegan diet:
-- Vitamin B-12: This B vitamin is almost exclusively found in animal food, which puts vegans specifically at risk for deficiency. As the vitamin is stored in the liver for about 6 to 10 years, an individual who is starting a vegan diet should follow up regularly with their medical doctor and dietitian so they can be advised if a supplement is right for them.
-- Zinc: While good sources of this mineral are found in shellfish (like oysters), pork, lamb and beef, vegetarians can also find zinc in wheat germ, lentils, beans, peas, nuts and whole grains.
-- Vitamin D: Good sources of this vitamin include daily exposure to sunlight, fish liver oils and egg yolks. Those who don't include eggs in their diet are especially vulnerable to deficiency, and should see their medical doctor to determine if a vitamin D supplement is right for them.
-- Calcium: Those vegetarians who don't consume milk and dairy products must obtain calcium from other sources. A deficiency in calcium can lead to osteoporosis (brittle bones) later in life. Good sources of calcium include fortified juices, fortified milk alternatives (such as soy or almond milk), almonds, dark leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and kale) and sardines with soft bones.
-- Iron: Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common deficiencies in the U.S., and vegetarians are no exception. The iron found in fish, seafood and eggs is better absorbed than iron from plant foods such as spinach, beans, tofu and fortified oatmeal. If you choose to get your iron from plant foods, it is important to include a source of vitamin C, too, which helps the body absorb the iron. For example, flavor your spinach with a spritz of lemon juice, or enjoy it with a glass of orange juice.
A New Focus
Many people who choose to follow a vegetarian diet may not be familiar with the wide variety of choices that exist, which can lead to deficiencies. The updated Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid addresses these issues by incorporating a wider variety of plant-based foods on their pyramid. The new Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid has vegetarians thinking beyond the loaf a whole wheat bread as their primary source of whole grains. Other whole grains that may be less familiar but are equally delicious include farro, amaranth, quinoa, barley and millet.
Similarly, the fruit and vegetable category has an expanded number of green vegetables depicted, because many folks are unfamiliar with the wide array of choices available, such as kale, avocado, mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard and turnip greens. Herbs and spices were also added in these guidelines, since they contain numerous vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
In order to come up with the recommendations, a 10-member scientific committee reviewed USDA's MyPlate, Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate and My Vegetarian Plate (created by General Conference Nutrition Council). These recommendations serve as guidelines and can vary based on the individual and health issues. A local registered dietitian can help build a diet based on these recommendations that is best suited for you.
-- Eggs and/or Dairy: Eggs: 4 to 6 per week; Dairy: 1 to 3 servings daily (Serving example: 1 egg or 1 cup milk or yogurt)
-- Plant Oils: Up to 5 servings daily (Serving example: 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil)
-- Herbs and Spices: Use liberally (Serving example: Fresh or dried herbs and spices)
-- Nuts, Peanuts, Seeds, Peanut- or Nut Butters: 1 to 3 servings daily (Serving example: 1/4 cup nuts or seeds)
-- Beans, Peas, Lentils, Soy: 3 to 6 servings daily (Serving example: 1/2 cup cooked beans, peas or lentils)
-- Whole Grains: 5 to 6 servings daily (Serving example: 1 slice of whole grain bread or 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, pasta or other whole grains)
-- Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings daily (Serving example: 1/2 cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw vegetables)
-- Fruits: 3 to 4 servings daily (Serving example: 1/2 cup fresh, canned or frozen fruit)
Vegans using the pyramid would not include eggs and dairy, which are included at the top of the Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid.
If you're a vegetarian or vegan, or if you're choosing to embark on a diet filled with plant-based foods, take the time to look at Oldways' Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid and become familiar with the wide array of foods available. Start experimenting in the kitchen and enjoy all that plant foods have to offer!
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations, including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.