Eating a vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet is one that does not include any meat or seafood but generally still includes eggs and dairy. A vegan diet excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy and often honey.

There are a number of reasons someone may choose to follow such a diet including, religious reasons, environmental reasons and health reasons.

Animal products tend to have a heavy environmental impact from the farming process to the manufacturing and distribution process.

Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be high in fibre and low in saturated fats, both of which may offer health benefits. We know high fibre diets may lower blood pressure, help with blood sugar control, are high satiety and may aid in lowering cholesterol. Reducing saturated fat in the diet, in favour of plant-based monounsaturated fats can also help lower cholesterol.

We can also safely assume that not eating animal products is also better for the animals, as less lives are taken to feed vegetarians or vegans (let’s not get started on the arguments against vegans and vegetarian diets and the insects live lost in vegetable farming).

Nutrients of concern on a vegan diet

With some food groups eliminated in a vegan/vegetarian diet, there are some nutrients that you need to make an extra effort to consume. This is particularly important for breastfeeding mothers and children.

Protein

We know that plant-based protein isn’t quite as beneficial as animal protein (i.e., meat, fish, chicken, dairy) when it comes to gaining and maintaining muscle mass. Extra care needs to be taken to ensure you are getting enough protein on a plant-based diet- you can’t just swap the animal protein for vegetables. Instead, you need to make an active effort to get those plant-based proteins in e.g., including tofu, nuts/seeds, or legumes (or dairy products/eggs for the vegetarians) at every meal or snack.

Iron

Iron is crucial in transporting oxygen around the body and low iron levels may leave you feeling lethargic and fatigued. There are two types of Iron- haem iron is found in animal products such as red meat. Non-haem iron is less absorbable but present in plant-based foods- including legumes, bread, cereals, and some vegetables. Some research indicates that you may need almost twice as much non-haem iron as you do haem iron.

B12

B12 is crucial for the brain to function properly. Like iron, one of the first signs of deficiency can be fatigue. B12 is only naturally occurring in animal foods, predominantly eggs and meat. Vegans need to rely on fortified foods to meet B12 requirements. Nutritional yeast and some fortified non-dairy milk can provide Vitamin B12.

Zinc

Zinc is important in tissue and wound healing and growth. The best food source of zinc is oysters, but red meat is the next best. Plant foods such as nuts, seeds and whole grains also contain Zinc, but again higher quantities are needed to meet Zinc targets.

Omega-3 FA

Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for heart and brain health and may also have skin health benefits. These fats are predominantly found in oily fish- think salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Smaller amounts are found in plant-based foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds. Vegans and vegetarians, therefore, need to make an extra effort to include these foods in the diet daily.

Calcium

Calcium is well known for its importance in strong bones and teeth, but it is also crucial for our nerves and muscle tissue to function properly. The best sources of Calcium in the diet include dairy products- milk, cheese, and yoghurt. Vegans can get small amounts from leafy green vegetables and nuts/seeds, but to meet their daily requirements they are likely to require extra calcium from fortified foods such as plant-based milk or calcium set tofu.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is another important factor in building strong, healthy bones and looking after our immune health. Vitamin D is available in some foods- eggs, oily fish, and mushrooms- but the best source is the sun. With likely lower amounts of Vitamin D coming from a vegetarian or vegan diet, those following these dietary patterns need to take extra care to ensure they are getting adequate sunlight or consider supplementation in less sunny parts of the world.

While the above nutrients need to be considered by anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet, breastfeeding mothers and children who have a vegetarian diet need to take extra care to ensure they are meeting all of these nutrient requirements.

Building a balanced vegetarian plate

Often those transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian diet will simply cut the animal products out of their diet but keep everything else the same. This, unfortunately, is where nutrient deficiencies can occur! Rather than dumping the meat from your plate, consider swapping it for a vegetarian/vegan alternative. For instance, where you would normally cook a beef stir-fry with rice, swap the beef for tofu. Where you would normally use beef mince, consider swapping in kidney beans. Look up recipes for new and exciting dishes that focus on lentils, chickpeas, beans, or tofu.

Just the way a meat eater should include a source of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and vegetables on their plate, so should a vegan/vegetarian.

Keep in mind, a vegetarian or vegan diet is not always going to be a healthier diet than an omnivorous one. There are still plenty of vegan junk foods to choose from and if you don’t plan your meals well, you may find yourself overeating on carbohydrates and fats due to not getting enough protein in. While a plant-based diet may be kinder to the planet and the animals, we don’t want this dietary change coming from a place of restriction. Remember, cutting out any food group, whether it be carbohydrates, fats, or animal-based foods, is often not the healthiest choice!

References

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318619856_Environmental_impact_of_omnivorous_ovo-lacto-vegetarian_and_vegan_diet

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21139125/

About the author

Cheyenne Holman

Cheyenne Holman

Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD)
Accredited Sports Dietitian
Certified Personal Trainer
Yoga Alliance Certified Yoga Teacher