When you remove any food from your diet, you’re at risk of nutrient deficiency. When you remove meat from your diet, you may not only be low in protein, but many other nutrients too.
Ethical reasons aside, there are many health benefits to the vegetarian diet – but I’ve always wondered what exactly makes a vegetarian diet healthy. There are different vegetarians but overall there are key nutrients to pay attention to. These include iron, B12 and a few others.
It’s possible to be a vegetarian (and do it well).
Health benefits of a vegetarian diet
It’s not just about avoiding meat. The benefits of the vegetarian diet comes from eating more fruit, veg, legumes, soy protein and wholegrains. This, in turn, makes the diet generally high in fibre, low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
It’s unclear whether an individual component (not eating red meat or the increase of vegetables) is responsible for the health outcomes, but is clear that the combination of these two factors makes it so effective. For vegetarians, there are lower rates of diabetes (especially with gestational diabetes mellitus) when compared with meat eaters.
What are the different types of vegetarians?
There are those who eat dairy and eggs (lacto ovo vegetarians) and those who eat dairy but avoid eggs (lacto vegetarians). Others will eat fish and seafood (pescatarians) and others may eat meat less than once a week (semi-vegetarians).
It’s possible to cut out meat from your diet and get all your nutrient requirements, but these are some of the nutrients that vegetarians may be at risk of deficiency for.
Nutrients to watch out for
Meat is often the main source of protein. You can’t just remove it from your diet, it’s important to replace the meat with other sources of protein. Ideally, there should be an adequate source of protein with each meal.
Even though vegetarians have a lower protein intake compared with non-vegetarians, vegetarian diets usually exceed their protein needs. The key is that vegetarians need to have a variety of protein sources in order to have a complete amino acid intake. Plant sources of protein include legumes, nuts and soy products. Other sources that vegetarians can get protein includes egg, cheese, yoghurt and milk.
The only significant source of B12 comes from animal products. While it takes several years for deficiency to show, anyone on a vegetarian (but especially on a vegan) diet long term will need supplementation.
You can increase your B12 intake with oral supplements, injections or fortified foods. Low B12 increases homocystene levels (a risk factor for CVD and bone factures), so it shouldn’t be neglected.
There are two different types of iron: heme (animal source) and non-heme (eggs & plant foods). Non-heme is not as well absorbed as heme iron, but may be assisted by vitamin C. So adding something as simple as capsicum to your meal can help boost your absorption of non-heme iron.
Iron deficiency rates aren’t higher in vegetarians, but they are at risk of depleting their body. Because of the non-heme iron being less efficient in absorbing – iron requirements are higher for vegetarians. Some other sources of iron include firm (and soft) tofu and fortified cereals and breads.
Because the needs are higher, it may be beneficial to avoid foods around meal times that can reduce absorption. This includes avoiding tea as the tannins inhibit absorption.
Zinc is an important structural mineral found in animal foods and important in adolescent male development. Vegetarians can ensure they are meeting their needs by having fortified cereal, wholegrains, legumes, seeds but like many other nutrients – variety is key.
Vegatarians are at risk of EPA and DHA (omega 3) deficiency if they choose to avoid fish. Some plant sources are chia seeds, flaxseeds, tofu and walnuts (and eggs if not being avoided). These contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted to EPA and DHA (but it’s fairly inefficient).
Margarine and oil (sources of omega 6) will help to improve absorption, in small amounts, but as we get enough omega 6 – it’s not an issue. Most people who are avoiding fish and these other sources should consider supplements.
What does this all mean?
Take home messages:
- Have a lot of variety
- Replace meat with other protein sources (when removing meat – use nuts, legumes, tofu or dairy products)
- Consider taking omega 3 supplements and having your B12 levels checked every few years
- Eat foods from all foods groups including plenty of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables
Like I’ve said before, we eat foods not nutrients. It’s essential, like with any style of eating, to focus on nutritious meals that include foods from each food group and limiting the junk food.