Following a well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy and rewarding; however, it is important to ensure your meat-free meals are balanced and are meeting all your nutrient needs.
Vegetarian diets can be categorised into four main groups:
Lacto-ovo vegetarians – Include dairy foods such as milk, and eggs, but avoid red meat, poultry and seafood.
Lacto-vegetarians – Include dairy foods, but avoid red meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.
Pescetarians – Include seafood, but avoid red meat and poultry (eggs and dairy foods may or may not be eaten).
Vegans – Include only plant foods.
|Red meat||Poultry||Seafood||Dairy foods||Eggs||Plant foods|
May or may not
May or may not
Vegetarian diets often provide a number of health benefits, as usually they contain plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. However, reaching a healthy balance when you’re vegetarian may mean adding in foods to ensure your body is supplied with vital nutrients found in animal products. So what should you look out for?
Protein is more than just a supplement for athletes and gym junkies; it’s an essential nutrient needed for the growth and repair of our body’s cells. Made from smaller building blocks called amino acids, a complete protein contains all of the nine amino acids needed for good health. While most Australians get plenty of protein through their diet, vegetarians can sometimes fall short as most plant sources do not contain complete proteins.
Consuming a variety of foods throughout the day should provide you with a good dose of complete protein. Here are some good sources to look for:
- Soy products, including milks, tofu and tempeh. (One of the only complete plant proteins)
- Legumes such as beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Wholegrain cereals
- Eggs and dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends men and women aged between 19-50 + consume between 2.5-3 serves of protein sources a day. A typical serve might consist of 2 eggs, a handful of nuts, 170 grams of tofu or a cup of cooked beans or lentils.
Try our Vegetable and Bean Ragout, which contains a good source of protein and is completely vegan.
Needed by our bodies for processes such as oxygen transfer, iron generally conjures images of a big, juicy steak. This is no surprise, really, as red meat is a good source of haem iron, a form that is more efficiently absorbed in our bodies than the non-haem iron found in plant foods.
That being said, vegetarian diets are often high in iron, as they tend to include plant foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils and fortified cereals. The key is to optimise non-haem iron’s absorption, which can be achieved by pairing foods with a source of Vitamin C, such as a glass of orange juice with your morning cereal, or some dried apricots in your mid-morning trail mix. You may also wish to avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals, as their naturally occurring tannins may interfere with iron’s absorption.
Try our Minestrone and Quinoa Soup, containing a plant source of iron from quinoa.
Not only is Vitamin B12 important for the production of red blood cells, it also plays a role in nerve and brain health. However, as it is found only in animal products, those who don’t consume eggs and dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt often find it difficult to consume enough.
Many vegetarian foods like soy drinks, cereals and meatless sausages and burgers are fortified with Vitamin B12, as is good old Vegemite! It’s particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to be vigilant in consuming Vitamin B12 containing foods, to reduce the risk of deficiency in their babies.
Try our Vegetable Lasagne, with a delicious low-fat ricotta cheese sauce.
We all know that calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, but did you know it also plays a role in regulating heart, nerve and muscle functioning, as well as blood clotting? Although it’s such an essential mineral, many people don’t consume enough. Luckily, dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese contain plenty of calcium, as do fortified soy and nut drinks.
For those who don’t consume dairy foods, ensure you’re meeting your requirements by choosing plant foods rich in calcium, like fortified cereals, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as leafy dark green vegetables – particularly Asian greens like Bok choy, which appear to be better absorbed.
Try our Broccoli, Spinach and Kale Soup
Zinc is a mineral that performs multiple functions in the body and plays an important role in immune function. Although plenty of plant foods contain zinc, their absorption in the body isn’t as efficient as from animal foods like red meat and seafood. Their lower bioavailability is mainly due to phytic acid, found naturally in legumes, cereals, nuts and seeds. Phytic acid binds to zinc and minimises its absorption in the body, but certain food preparation techniques can reduce this process.
Breads like sourdough, made through yeast fermentation, as well as beans and legumes that have been soaked prior to eating, are great simple choices to improve zinc absorption.
Vitamin D is important for strong bones, muscles and general good health. The greatest source of Vitamin D for most Australians is sunlight, as only trace amounts are found in food sources. Vitamin D is found largely in foods like oily fish, eggs and full fat dairy products however vegetarians can also find it in fortified foods like margarine, cereals and dairy or soy milks.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Vegetarian diets are often lower in unhealthy saturated fat, but given the myriad health benefits of essential fatty acids like Omega 3, it’s important to ensure that you’re not missing out.
We call them essential fatty acids as they cannot be made by our bodies. In particular, Omega 3 fatty acids are required for brain and eye development, and are known to protect against inflammation that may lead to chronic diseases.
Those who consume seafood can get a good dose of Omega 3 with 2-3 serves weekly of oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and herring. Those who avoid seafood can consume plant sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, tofu and soy products and canola oil, along with fortified bread, milk and eggs.
Maintaining a healthy vegetarian lifestyle is infinitely achievable, and though all this talk of vitamin and minerals may seem like a lot to take in, all of these essential nutrients can easily be incorporated in your diet with just a little extra thought
Article written by Felicity Curtain