The food pyramid we learn as kids includes a healthy dose of meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Indeed, most of us grow up knowing that we need our meat to grow up healthy. So when you go vegetarian and slash off a third of that list–or more if you’re going vegan–aren’t you messing with the age-old concept of a balanced diet? Experts say it isn’t–it’s more like moving some things around.
The bottom of the food pyramid contains the foods you should consume the most. In both pyramids, these are the carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy. Most sources are vegetarian, so there isn’t much of a difference. Bread, rice, pasta, cereals, and grains are among the most common. The recommended dose is six to 11 servings a day. If you’re not very active, you don’t need that much energy, so stay within the lower range.
Next up is the fruit and vegetable group. Doctors recommend two to four servings of fruit and three to four servings of vegetables every day. Opt for fresh or dried produce as much as possible–avoid canned or processed ones, as even the low-sodium varieties have more sodium than you really need. Breakfast is a good time to get some fruit into your diet, as well as after lunch as a light dessert.
Protein sources are a must, but must be taken in smaller amounts than fruits and vegetables. This is where the two food pyramids differ the most. While meat and dairy are the main sources of protein in most diets, vegetarians are limited to plant sources. Fortunately, there are many: nuts, legumes, seeds, and beans are among the most common. Meat alternatives such as seitan and TVP are also acceptable, although you should watch out for excessive processing and artificial flavors. This group also includes milk and eggs, or acceptable substitutes if you’re on a vegan diet. Two to three servings of each are recommended per day.
Finally, you have the fats and oils group, which should be taken sparingly. You don’t want to eliminate them completely from your diet, but make sure not to overdo it. Use low-fat oils such as olive and sunflower for cooking, as well as for salad dressings. Allow yourself the occasional sweet–a slice of cake or a scoop of ice cream–but stick to the recommended dose of about one serving per day.