Many studies have supported the evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk for developing health issues such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and diet related cancers. Overall vegetarians tend to have much healthier lifestyles – they are known to smoke less and drink less alcohol.

 The nutritional benefits of vegetarian diets include lower saturated fat intakes and higher intakes of complex carbohydrate, fibre, folate, and vitamins.

There are many reasons why people become vegetarian. Factors such as improving overall health, saving money, religious reasons and concern for animal welfare are some reasons.

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but care needs to be taken to ensure that it is well balanced to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients.

The vegetarian needs to take particular care with iron, calcium and zinc. It is also important to ensure that a good variety of protein based foods is consumed.

A vegetarian who “only” avoids red meat, chicken and fish will get their protein from eggs and dairy products, as well as other plant based sources such as nuts, seeds, grains, dried beans and lentils. The nutrients most at risk for the vegetarian who avoids red meat, chicken and fish are iron and zinc.

Other vegetarians will also avoid (along with meat, fish and chicken) either eggs or dairy products. A vegan will avoid all animal based foods. If you have removed dairy from your diet then making sure you have a good source of calcium is important.

A well planned and balanced vegetarian diet can meet all your nutritional needs. Remember though once you remove food groups from the diet it is important to find suitable alternatives.

Many young vegetarians who I see in my clinic are under the misconception that you can stop eating the meat portion at dinner and just carry on eating vegetables with no protein alternative. Some of the teenagers that I see are also very poor fruit and vegetable eaters making the resulting diet lacking in essential nutrients.

Just like any other diet it is important to eat a variety of foods from each of the four food groups. For vegetarians the recommended serves from each food group are as shown in the table

Food Group Number of serves to have each day Example of one serve
Bread & cereal group

 

At least 6 servings daily Roll (wholegrain) – 1 small,
Muffin – 1,
Bread (wholemeal) – 1 medium slice

Cornflakes – 1 cup

Muesli – ½ cup

Rice or pasta (cooked) – 1 cup

Biscuits (sweet / cracker) – 2

Fruit and Vegetables At least 5 servings daily Apple / pear / banana / orange – 1

Apricots / plums – 2 small

Fruit salad / stewed fruit – ½ cup

Fruit juice – 1 cup

Potato / kumera – 1 medium

Vegetables (cooked) / salad – ½ cup

Tomato – 1

Leafy green vegetables – ½ cup

Legumes, Nuts and seeds

 

At least 2 servings daily Beans (cooked) – ¾ cup

Chickpeas (cooked) – ¾ cup

Tofu / tempeh – ¾ cup

Nuts / seeds – ½ cup

Egg – 1

Dairy products or alternative

(eg. Soy milk fortified with calcium)

At least 2 – 3 servings daily 250 ml milk

1 pottle yoghurt or buttermilk (150 g)

40 g (2 slices) hard cheese

200 g cottage cheese or ricotta cheese

tahini – 4 tbsp

Protein in the vegetarian diet

Plant based proteins are not as well digested and processed by the body as animal proteins, and are not as “complete” as protein from meat. However a well planned vegetarian diet can provide plenty of protein, especially when eggs, milk and other dairy products are included.

The body requires 8 essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for growth and repair. Animal tissues contain the complete set of essential amino acids required by the body. Vegetarians need to eat a range of protein foods over the day to ensure they get a complete balance of the essential amino acids.

Good sources of protein in a vegetarian diet include whole grains (eg. Whole wheat flour, bread and pasta, brown rice, oats and rye), legumes (dried beans such as lima, soy, haricot beans; split peas); lentils; soy products (such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh) nuts and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame), low fat dairy products, eggs and dairy products.

Next month I will look at some individual nutrients which are of concern for the vegetarian.

 

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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