The Vegetarian Food Groups

Eating a wide variety of fresh foods from the vegetarian food groups is the key to overall healthy nutrition.

The two magic words from that sentence are; "variety" and "fresh".

Claiming to be a vegetarian and then popping a frozen portion of macaroni and cheese into the microwave for dinner is not going to reward us with any of the health benefits that we're seeking. It's still very important to eat sensibly and to commit to taking the extra time necessary to properly prepare a nutritious meal.

We want to continue to place our emphasis on the ample use of fresh fruits and vegetables since they are the nutrtional powerhouses of the vegetarian food groups. For even more variety, we can add in some items from the more concentrated food groups to round out our meals and expand on the variety of our nutritional exposure.

Now let's take a closer look at the nutritional impact of the different vegetarian food groups.

(As introduced in our discussion of the vegetarian food pyramid, survival foods are food groups that are not naturally palatable and must be cooked or modified in some way to be eaten. As a general rule, they have high concentrations of certain nutrients that can cause health problems if eaten in excess.)

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

This is the most important of all the vegetarian food groups. Fresh fruits and vegetables are good sources of dietary fiber and are loaded with essential vitamins and minerals that we need on a daily basis. They have an alkaline effect on the body chemistry and provide healthy carbohydrates and the good fats in modest quantities. However they are low in protien content. Eat all you want!

Grains, Pastas and Breads (survival foods)

Whole grains, pastas and breads are good sources of complex carbohydrates and have much more nutritional value and dietary fiber than the more processed varieties. They are a good source of vitamin E and some of the essential amino acids. When consumed along with beans, nuts or soy products, they can provide all of the essential amino acids needed for proper nutrition.

However, grains and grain products have a high rating on the Glycemic Index, meaning that they can cause spikes in insulin production. They also have a highly acidic effect on body chemistry which can lead to a depletion of minerals, especially calcium.

Therefore this is one of the vegetarian food groups that we placed higher on our food pyramid than fruits and vegetables. They are a concentrated food source and a little goes a long way. Eat in moderation only.

Dried Beans (survival foods)

Dried beans are another excellent souorce of carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Plus they have ample amounts of plant-based protiens which are much easier to digest than animal-based protiens. They combine well with grain products to deliver complete protien nutrition.

However dried beans have a decidedly acidic effect on the body chemistry. It is helpful to eat them combined with lots of vegetables to help balance out their acidic pH effect. Eat in moderation.

Nuts and Seeds

Fresh raw nuts and seeds are an excellent source of essential amino acids and mono-unsaturated fats. Roasted nuts and seeds are much less nutritious than raw. We recommend keeping raw nuts and seeds refrigerated during storage. If you eat them regularly and purchase them on a routine basis, you shouldn't have any problems with their becoming rancid.

Raw nuts and seeds are not survival foods since they pass our "gut reaction test" as a natural food source. However they are very concentrated and have an acidic effect on body chemistry. Eat them by themselves as a snack, with vegetables or as nut butters with whole grain breads. Eat often but sparingly.

Soy Products (survival foods)

Soy products can be classed like dried beans. They have been slightly modified, usually by fermentation (soy sauce) or coagulation into tofu (bean curd).

Tofu is an excellent source of vegetable proteins and can be added to all kinds of different vegetarian dishes.

Stay clear of soy-based "meat substitutes" that contain "soy protein isolate", "hydrolized soy protein" or "hexane derived protein". These products are highly processed and have been shown to interfere with our body's natural immune responses.

Stick with the less processed tofu products and "meat substitutes" that do not contain these harmful substances. (We like the "Tofurky" brand line of products.) Eat in moderation

Milk and Dairy Products

Since milk may pass our "gut reaction test" we are not classifying it as one of the vegetarian food groups that is a survival food. But as with nuts and seeds, milk and milk products have an acid effect on body chemistry and they are very concentrated foods. They are good sources of animal protiens but are harder to digest than plant protiens and they are high in saturated fats. Therefore we have placed them near the top of the vegetarian food pyramid. Eat sparingly.

Fats and Oils (survival foods)

Raw nuts and seeds, avocados and olives are an excellent source of mono-unsaturated fats.

For cooking we like to use extra virgin olive oil since it has a fairly high "smoke point". For salad dressings we prefer to use flax seed oil which is high in omega-3 fatty acid content, an essential nutrient.

Opting to avoid using the bad fats is probably one of the most difficult diet modifications we can make in our endeavor to fashion a healthy diet using the different vegetarian food groups. They add a pleasing flavor and texture to foods that can be hard to say "no" to.

But we strongly recommend staying away from hydrogenated fats like margarine and shortenings and the products often made with them including cookies, cakes, pies and other baked goods. They are high in omega-6 fats which are associated with increased disease risk when eaten in excess. Minimize your intake of animal fats which can contribute to heart disease risk. And learn to say "no" to breaded and fried foods which are often cooked in highly refined seed oils like corn, soybean, sunflower, canola or cottonseed oils. All of these can elevate your trans-fatty acid levels. These are the bad fats that it's best to avoid. If you stick with the good oils and fats, you'll be fine. Use sparinigly.

Next let's take a closer look at how to get Complete Vegetarian Protein when following a meatless diet.

Return to Vegetarian Nutrition from Vegetarian food Groups