Published on May 17, 2017

Vegetarians can fall prey to junk food too

By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Better health is one of the main reasons that people choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. But they still need to make healthy choices because it can be easy to fall into a different kind of junk food diet.

A nationwide poll in 2016 found about 3 percent of American adults are vegetarian or vegan, meaning they never eat meat, poultry or fish. About 46 percent of vegetarians are vegan, which means they don't eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy.

Vegetarian or vegan diets should consist of mostly whole plant-based foods, including vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds and fruits. But there are vegetarians who don't even like vegetables and live on processed foods. Many processed vegan foods are high in sodium and sugar and low in whole grains and fiber. If cheese is a main source of protein, the diet can be very high in saturated fat. A poorly planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be inadequate in protein, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B-12 and other minerals.

Vegan and vegetarian recipes often use refined flour instead of whole grains and many types of added sugar. Processed foods that claim to be vegan or vegetarian may have even more sodium and added sugar.  Here are a couple examples:

  • Pop Tarts, 12-14 grams of added sugar, which equals 3-4 teaspoons
  • Two Oreo cookies, 12-13 grams of added sugar or 3-3 1/2 teaspoons
  • Licorice, 16-27 grams of added sugar per serving or 4-7 1/2 teaspoons
  • Cinnamon scone at Starbucks, 490 milligrams of sodium and 34 grams of added sugar or 8 1/2 teaspoons
  • Canned soup, 400-800 milligrams of sodium per cup
  • Frozen veggie burgers, 350-600 milligrams of sodium.

The American Institute for Cancer Research encourages a plant-based diet, suggesting Americans consume two-thirds of their diet from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. The American Heart Association recommends a similar diet plus limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams a day and added sugar to no more than six teaspoons for children and women and no more than nine teaspoons for men.

Vegetarians and vegans who eat a well-balanced diet are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity and certain types of cancer. Even if you choose not to eat vegetarian or vegan, these good foods can help you avoid the health conditions that can debilitate us.  Give one of these vegetarian or vegan recipes a try.

Black Bean Wild Rice Patties
These patties are a great way to combine a variety of vegetables, beans and whole grains with very little sodium. They offer a lot of fiber and good amount of protein. This recipe can be made vegan by eliminating the eggs.

2 cups cooked black beans or 2 15-ounce cans, drained.
1/4 cup raw wild rice, rinsed
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/4 cup green pepper, chopped
1/4 cup mushrooms, chopped
1/4 cup carrots, shredded
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup frozen corn
2 eggs
1/2 cup panko plain bread crumbs
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon teaspoon turmeric

Partially mash black beans with a fork in a medium bowl. Cook rice in 1/2 cup water. Place water and rice in saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes (or longer depending up type of wild rice).

Sauté onion, garlic, green pepper, carrots, mushrooms, carrots and other vegetables in the olive oil in a medium pan.  Combine mashed beans, cooked wild rice, sautéed vegetables, eggs, bread crumbs and seasonings. Form into 6 patties. Heat pan over medium heat. Fry patties on each side until warm.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 patty
Servings: 6
Calories: 170
Total fat: 2.5 grams
Saturated Fat: 0.5 grams
Trans fat: 0
Cholesterol:  40 milligrams
Sodium: 130 milligrams
Potassium: 275 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 28 grams
Fiber: 6 grams
Protein: 10 grams
Calcium: 26 milligrams 

Peanut Sweet Potato Soup
This vegan recipe is compliments of the Duluth Grill.  The original recipe called for ¾ teaspoon salt, regular canned tomatoes and a vegetable soup base with an estimated 200 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon. Eliminating the salt, yields a cup of soup with only 230 milligrams of sodium.  If you use a lower sodium soup base or no-salt-added tomatoes, the sodium would be even lower.

2 cups peeled and diced sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 quart water plus 4 teaspoons low-sodium vegetable soup paste or bouillon OR 1 quart vegetable stock that is less than 200 milligrams sodium per cup
2 15-ounce cans of fire-roasted tomatoes
12-ounce can of Thai Light coconut milk
2 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger root
1/2 cup unsalted or lightly salted peanuts                            
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/8-1/2   teaspoon cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Peel and dice sweet potatoes. In stockpot, saute onion, garlic and celery in oil. Add in tomatoes, sweet potatoes and coconut milk; cook on medium heat. Mix vegetable soup base/paste into 1 quart of hot water if using. Put 1 cup vegetable stock, peanuts, coriander, cayenne and turmeric in a food processor or blender.  Blend until smooth. Add to soup mixture.  Process or blend chopped ginger and 1 cup vegetable stock; add to soup. Add remaining 2 cups of stock to soup.  Add chopped cilantro and mix until fully incorporate. Cook soup until sweet potatoes are tender, about 60-90 minutes.

Nutrition facts
Serving size: 1 cup
Servings: 8
Calories: 120
Total fat: 6 grams
Saturated fat; 2.5 grams
Trans fat: 0 grams
Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
Sodium: 230 milligrams
Potassium: 405 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams
Sugar: 4.5 grams (O grams added sugar)
Fiber: 2.5 grams
Protein: 4 grams
Calcium: 15 milligrams

Dark Chocolate Vegan Lava Cake
No sugar or sweetener it added to this vegan recipe adapted from  It provides great phytonutrients from the dark chocolate along with fiber from the lentils and sweet potatoes as well as omega 3 fatty acids from the walnuts and flaxseed. The added sugar comes in the chocolate bar.

Cake batter:
1/2 cup walnuts
6 medjool dates, pitted
2/3 cup mashed cooked sweet potato
1 cup cooked black French lentils
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed diluted in 2/3 cup water
10 ounces of 60 to 72 percent cocoa dark chocolate. 

Chocolate sauce (optional)
4 ounces of 60 to 72 percent cocoa dark chocolate
1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk or soy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a cupcake pan with canola oil. Cook lentils according to package directions. Boil for about 20 minutes and rinse. Dilute flaxseed in water and measure out sweet potatoes.

Melt 10 ounces of chocolate by breaking into pieces and melting in a double boiler or microwave. Stir and set aside. Place walnuts and pitted dates in the bowl of a food processor and process well for 30 seconds. Add the mashed sweet potato, rinsed cooked lentils and diluted flax meal. Pulse a few times until batter is smooth. Add melted chocolate and process for another 20-30 seconds until creamy and smooth.

Scoop the batter into cupcake pan, filling each ¾ full. Bake for 20 minutes. Let cakes cool fully, then gently run a knife around the edges to remove them from pan.

To prepare chocolate sauce, mix 4 ounces of chocolate pieces with the almond milk.  Microwave for 20-30 seconds and stir until smooth.  Drizzle a little chocolate sauce over each cake. 
Nutrition facts (without sauce)
Serving size: 1 cake
Servings: 12
Calories: 205
Total fat: 13 grams
Saturated fat: 6 grams
Trans fat: 0 grams
Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
Sodium: 5 milligrams
Carbohydrate: 25 grams
Total sugar: 14 grams (6 grams added sugar)
Fiber: 6 grams
Protein: 5 grams

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