Going Vegetarian: What you need to know

Vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more mainstream as people are giving up meat and animal products and turning to a plant based diet. While dedicated vegetarians and vegans don’t like it to be referred to as a ‘trend’ it certainly seems that ditching the meat is the food ‘movement’ of 2016. And I’m all for it as there are some very cool vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes popping up close to me. There are many reasons why people are turning to plant based diets such health benefits, environmental reasons, to live a more sustainable lifestyle, for animal rights, for ethical reasons or simply because of personal preference.

These days being ‘vegetarian’ can actually mean a number of things, for example:

A flexitarian is someone who avoids meat most of the time but occasionally will still indulge in meat, poultry or fish.

A pescitarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat and poultry but will still eat fish, dairy and eggs.

A lacto-ovo vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, fish or poultry but will still eat eggs and dairy. This is the most common form of vegetarianism (lacto meaning dairy and ovo meaning eggs).

A lacto-vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish or eggs but will still consume dairy products.

An ovo-vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish or dairy but will consume eggs.

And finally there is veganism.  This is considered the most ‘extreme’ form of vegetarianism. A vegan diet excludes all animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, honey and geletan.

This article will mainly focus on vegetarian diets but will still provide some useful information to those following a vegan diet.

So are vegetarian diets really healthier?

Some research suggests that people who consume a well-balanced vegetarian diet have lower rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some types of cancer and live longer compared to those who have an omnivorous diet (diets including meat). The key here is ‘well-balanced’. By simply excluding meat, poultry and fish from the diet doesn’t automatically make it healthy. Many ‘occasional’ foods such as chips, cake, biscuits, pizza, pastries and soft drink can all still be consumed in a vegetation diet and everyday foods such as fruits and vegetables can still be neglected if vegetarian diets aren’t thoughtfully planned out. When going vegetarian balanced eating still applies. Vegetarian diets should still aim to include everyday foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes and keep chips, cakes, pastries and biscuits as occasional extras.

You can still get plenty of benefits from a vegetarian diet without going ‘all the way’ (see above under ‘flexitarian’). There is consensus amongst health and nutrition professionals that the ‘healthiest’ diets are ones that are predominately based on minimally processed plant foods with fish and smaller amounts of meat, poultry and dairy being consumed if desired. One such diet is the Mediterranean diet which is known to provide longevity and reduced rates of chronic diseases to it’s followers. The Mediterranean diet emphasises plant based foods and fish with smaller amounts of meat and dairy.

Due to the exclusion of meat, poultry and fish from vegetarian diets it is important to replace the nutrients that are found in these foods with vegetarian options. Nutrients to consider and carefully plan in a vegetarian diet include protein, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids and calcium (if also excluding dairy from the diet).

Protein

Protein is important for growth and repair, immune function and for enzyme and hormone production. Protein requirements vary depending on age, sex, exercise levels and type, weight and health status. As a rough guide the recommended dietary intake of protein for adult women is 0.75g/kg/day and for adult men 0.85g/kg/day.

Meat, poultry and fish are rich in protein. Vegetarians excluding these foods can easily meet their protein requirements by consuming dairy and eggs (if eaten), pulses, lentils and legumes, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh and other soy products. However, vegetarians needs to be a little more mindful of the types of proteins they are consuming. Protein is made up of amino acids which are known as ‘the building blocks’ of protein. Some of these amino acids can be made by the body (non essential amino acids) whereas other must be consumed in the diet (essential amino acids). If one or more of the essential amino acids is lacking the body cannot produce many important proteins.

Animal products contain all of the essential amino acids whereas plant products usually lack at least one of the essential amino acids. There are some ‘complete protein’ plant sources that include all of the essential amino acids such as quinoa, soy products and amaranth. If vegetarians eat a variety of different protein sources throughout the day getting all of the essential amino acids is easily achievable. For example a simple meal of baked beans on multi-grain toast would provide all of the essential amino acids.

Snapshot: Vegetarians can adequately meet their protein requirements when eating a different variety of plant based protein sources.

Iron

Iron is an extremely important mineral due to it’s vital roles of transporting oxygen around the body, production of red blood cells and maintaining a healthy immune system. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian’s are at risk of iron deficiency if iron rich foods are not consumed regularly. It has been estimated that about 5% of the Australian population has iron deficiency anaemia.

Iron is readily available in meat, especially red meat. The iron found in animal products can be either haem iron or non haem iron. Haem iron is derived from haemoglobin and myoglobin (found in blood and muscles) and is only found in animal protein sources. Because of its chemical structure (Fe2+) haem iron is more readily absorbed by the body than non haem iron.

Non haem iron is less bioavailable than haem iron. Non haem iron is in the Fe3+ form so once it enters the body it has to be converted to the Fe2+ form to be absorbed. Plant based iron is only in the non haem form. Good sources of plant based iron include tofu, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and silver beet, fortified cereals, wholegrains, legumes and lentils, nuts and seeds and also eggs. Vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables) can boost non haem iron absorption and in some cases such as broccoli cooking will allow for more iron absorption than eating broccoli raw.

Certain foods and drinks can interfere and reduce iron absorption. Tannins found in tea, coffee and red wine and high amounts of phytates and fibres such as in bran, wholegrains and beans can reduce iron absorption. Combine foods high in phytates with foods rich in vitamin C to maximise iron absorption as much as possible.

Snapshot: Vegetarians can meet their recommended dietary intake of iron with well planned meals. Eating iron rich plant foods with foods high in vitamin C can help maximise iron absorption, while avoiding drinking tea, coffee and red wine at the same time.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for the production of red blood cells, for neurological function and to keep the brain and nerves healthy. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products so vegetarians that exclude dairy from their diets and vegans are at risk of B12 deficiency. The vitamin B12 claimed to be present in mushrooms, miso, nori, tempeh and spirulina has been shown to be the inactive form of B12 therefore doesn’t contribute to B12 requirements. Vegetarians can get adequate amounts of B12 from dairy products and eggs if consumed regularly. Some foods are also fortified with B12 such vegetarian and vegan burgers and sausages, some milks (rice and soy) and some breakfast cereals (always check the label). If vegans don’t regularly consume these products it is recommended that they take a B12 supplement.  B12 anaemia can develop without sufficient intake of vitamin B12.

Snapshot: Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Vegetarians can obtain B12 from dairy and eggs (if eaten) and vegans can get B12 from fortified products. However if these products aren’t consumed regularly B12 supplementation is recommended.

Vitamin D

It is often thought that vegetarians and vegans are at risk of vitamin D deficiency. However, it has been estimated that up to one third of all Australians may be vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is found in very small amounts in some foods such as oily fish, milk and eggs (or fortified foods) however most Australians would get their vitamin D from the sunlight. The best way to get enough vitamin D is through sun exposure rather than relying on foods. It is important to find the balance of getting enough sun exposure for adequate amounts of vitamin D and not exposing the skin too much to increase the risk of skin cancer.

Snapshot: Get your vitamin D by finding a nice balance of sun exposure for adequate vitamin D and not exposing skin too much to increase skin cancer risk.

Omega-3’s

Omega 3 fatty acids are known as essential fatty acids as the body cannot make them, they must be obtained from food. They are an important part of the brain, eyes and cell membranes and help to produce hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls and inflammation. Due to these effects omegas 3’s are known to be very beneficial for heart and cardiovascular health and may help to protect against other chronic diseases. Omega 3’s are part of the polyunsaturated fat family. Omega 3’s are usually grouped into 2 different categories: marine based omega 3’s and plant based omega 3’s. Marine based omega 3’s come in the form of DHA and EPA and are found in fish, especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Plant based omega 3’s come in the ALA form and are found in vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), seeds (especially flaxseeds and chia seeds) and soy beans. Most of the omega 3’s found in the brain, eyes and cell membranes are in the DHA form and it is recommended to consume omega 3’s in the DHA and EPA form for cardiovascular health. The body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, however this process is not very efficient (around 2 – 10%) and many factors can inhibit this process – excess omega 6’s and saturated fats, low levels of protein and energy intake as well as nutrient deficiencies (B3, B6, zinc, Mg). To maximise conversion it is recommended to achieve an omega 6: omega 3 ratio of 4:1 (some studies suggest 2:1 and even 1:1). Most people (both vegetarians and non vegetarians) consume much higher levels of omega 6 which puts this ratio out of whack. To achieve optimal essential fatty acid intake vegetarians and vegans should aim to:

  • Get adequate amounts of ALA in their diet, between 2-5g per day.  Chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and hempseeds are rich in ALA. While flaxseeds are a great source of ALA’s they can go straight through the intestinal tract undigested. Ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil will ensure more ALA’s are absorbed.
  • Use low omega 6 oils such as olive, avocado, peanut or canola in place of high omega 6 oils such as safflower and sunflower.
  • Consume monounsaturated fatty acids found in avocados, nuts, olives and olive oil.

Snapshot: See 3 points above.

Calcium

Many people are aware of the importance of calcium for healthy and strong bones and teeth but calcium also plays an important role in muscle and nerve function. Good sources of calcium include dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. For those vegetarians excluding dairy from their diet and for vegans calcium can be found in soy products and tofu (firm rather than silken), fish with bones such as sardines and salmon (if eaten), nuts and seeds, tahini and green leafy vegetables (broccoli, Chinese cabbage, bok choy). While spinach contains a good amount of calcium only a small amount is absorbed by the body due to its high oxalate content, a compound in spinach that reduces absorption.  Calcium fortified foods are also a good option for vegetarians and vegans such as fortified milks (almond, rice, soy), soy products and breakfast cereals. When it comes to bone health adequate calcium intake is not the only important factor. Regular weight baring physical activity and adequate vitamin D also play an important role in strengthening bones. Being underweight, excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption, smoking and high salt diets can reduce calcium absorption and lower bone density.

Snapshot: If dairy is excluded from the diet calcium can be obtained from soy products, green leafy vegetables (however don’t rely on spinach for calcium needs), almonds, sesame seeds and calcium fortified products.  Regular weight baring physical activity and adequate vitamin D is also important for bone health.

Well planned vegetarian diets are nutritionally adequate, may provide some protection against certain disease and can be super tasty and enjoyable! If full vego is not for you maybe try adopting Meat Free Monday’s or consider a flexitarian approach to still obtain some benefits of plant based diets.

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