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Finding nutrients, protein and more in a healthy vegetarian diet

Daniel Cukler

While many agree that it’s good practice to eat vegetables regularly, what about going all-in and committing to a vegetarian diet? These days, leading health experts point to the diet’s many benefits, as long as you do your homework. Should you include eggs and dairy? How much protein is essential to good health? How do you eat a balanced and nutritious vegetarian diet?

This week on “Take Care,” advice on how to eat a healthy vegetarian diet from one of the nation’s top experts on nutrition, Dr. Donald Hensrud. Hensrud is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller “The Mayo Clinic Diet.” He’s also chair of the Division of Preventive, Occupations and Aerospace Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and medical director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.

There are some nutrients that a vegetarian should plan carefully to include in their diet, but Hensrud says it isn’t that difficult.

“Protein is a concern of many people,” Hensrud says. “If people include eggs and dairy in their vegetarian diet, then protein shouldn’t be an issue. Even on a vegan diet, if people get enough calories, if they choose their foods from a variety of food groups, protein shouldn’t be an issue either.”

The required daily intake of protein is .8 grams per kilogram, according to Hensrud. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, you require about 56 grams of protein per day. Most men and women eat much more than is required, says Hensrud.

And if you’re especially worried you may not be getting enough protein, Hensrud says soy beans are just as good a source of protein as animal products. Beans, nuts and even whole grains also have protein in them.

“People have looked at vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians,” Hensrud says. “They tend to weigh less, they have less heart disease, less of certain types of cancer, so, overall, the health benefits are clear.”

Plant-based diet

What matters most is your diet in the long term. Focusing on a plant-based diet, even if it includes meat occasionally, is a great place to start, according to this week’s guest.

“We like to use the term ‘plant-based diet’ and encourage people to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and olive oil as a healthy source of fat,” Hensrud says.

A different kind of fullness

“When people eat meat or protein, it tends to be very dense and that fullness is obviously recognizable. When you’re eating more veggies, fruits, whole grains -- it’s a lighter kind of fullness,” Hensrud says.

Changing to a plant-based diet requires one to eat more and eat whenever they’re hungry, as long as they’re eating the healthier foods.