Many people choose to follow a vegetarian diet for health, environmental, religious, ethical or financial reasons. Whilst there are plenty of health benefits, there can be nutritional problems if it’s not done wisely. With careful planning it’s possible to meet all your nutritional needs and eat tasty vegetarian food at the same time.
Different Types of Vegetarian Diets
There’s quite a variety of vegetarian diets, depending on which food/s you’re excluding. The different types include:
- Semi-vegetarian – includes fish and/or chicken, avoiding other forms of meat.
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarian – avoids all meat, but includes eggs and dairy products.
- Ovo-vegetarian – avoids all meat and dairy, but includes eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarian – avoids all meat and eggs, but includes dairy.
- Vegan – avoids all animal products, even honey and yeast.
Vegetarian Health Benefits:
A well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce the risk of:
- Coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Diet related cancers.
Meeting Your Nutritional Needs
Choosing to exclude certain animal products may mean missing out on vital nutrients if these foods aren’t replaced with suitable alternatives. Some key nutrients to be mindful of include:
Animal products and soybeans are complete proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids needed by the body. Plant foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds and cereal grains contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids. Getting a variety of plant foods throughout the day helps ensure the complete complement of amino acids is obtained. Most vegetarians still meet their protein requirements however some vegans do not.
- Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fats are an essential fat found in fish and plant sources such as flaxseed, walnuts, dark leafy greens and foods fortified with omega 3 such as eggs. Omega 6 fats are also essential and can be found in flaxseed, nuts and seeds, and vegetables oils. For non-fish eating vegetarians it’s important to avoid over-consuming omega 6 fats and to obtain enough omega 3 fats in your diet
In the diet, iron is found as heme-iron in animal products and non-heme iron in plant sources. Non-heme iron is more difficult to absorb, so add vitamin C rich foods such as capsicum, broccoli, and pineapple to a meal to increase iron absorption. Coffee, tea, fibre, wine, and high dose mineral supplements can inhibit iron absorption and are best avoided with iron-rich meals. Good vegetarian sources of iron include blackstrap molasses, lentils, spinach, soybeans, apricots, pumpkin seeds and millet.
Dairy products are a source of calcium for some vegetarians, whilst other vegetarians and vegans need to reply on plant sources such as nuts and seeds, tahini, leafy green vegetables, legumes and calcium-fortified foods for their calcium. Include a variety of calcium rich foods in the diet and ensure vitamin D levels are sufficient to assist calcium absorption.
Shellfish and fish are rich sources of zinc for some vegetarians, however if your diet excludes these foods, good plant sources of zinc include nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Plant sources of zinc are absorbed less effectively than animal sources, so you’ll need to eat more of these foods to meet your daily zinc requirements.
- Vitamin B12
This vitamin is only found naturally in animal products, so vegetarians and vegans in particular can become vitamin B12 deficient. Look for foods fortified with added vitamin B12, though in some cases supplementation may be necessary. Older vegetarians need to be mindful of their B12 levels because absorption of this nutrient becomes less efficient as we age.
- Vitamin D
Whilst small amounts of vitamin D can be found in oily fish, liver, dairy and egg yolks, 90% of our vitamin D needs come from the sun. Because a lot of people cover up when in the sun, some vegetarians and vegans may become vitamin D deficient if avoiding animal products and sun exposure. Supplementation with vitamin D may be necessary in some individuals.
Where To From Here?
Make changes slowly and you’re more likely to find the transition easier. Try eating three meat-free meals every week, then introduce more vegetarian meals as the weeks go by. Try substituting vegetarian ingredients into your favourite meat dishes, such as lentil lasagne instead of meat lasagne or homemade vegetarian pizza instead of Hawaiian. Grab a vegetarian cookbook and start experimenting.
Vegetarian restaurants can be found in most major cities and many restaurants offer vegetarian dishes on their menu, so you shouldn’t go hungry if eating out.