Vegetarianism seems to be on the rise, with recent research suggesting as many as 12% of people in the UK are following vegetarian or vegan diets.1 The reasoning for following a vegetarian diet can vary massively from person to person, but they do offer many health benefits, such as the reduction in risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
However, some vegetarians may find they are eating too many processed foods that are high in calories, as well as fat and sodium. Others may be missing out on nutrients by not eating enough fruit. However, with a little bit of tweaking, you can ensure any vegetarian diet can provide the nutrients for people of all ages and at any stage of life, including young children and pregnant or breast-feeding women.
Getting it right
The key to a successful vegetarian diet is to know about the nutrients that your body requires, and making a plan to ensure you get them. There are a number of different vegetarian diets available. These include:
- Lacto-vegetarianism: diets which cut out meat, poultry, fish and eggs, but continue to eat dairy products
- Pescatarianism: diets which cut out meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, but contain fish
- Pollotarianism: excluding meat, dairy and fish, but include poultry
- Ovo-vegetarianism: the removal of meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but continue to eat eggs
- Lacto-ovo: excluding meat, poultry and fish, but continue to eat dairy and eggs
- Veganism: the removal of all animal products from the diet.
Other people may follow a semi-vegetarian diet, which includes eating a small amount of meat, or only on an occasional basis.
Having a successful plan
As with every diet, the way to ensure a vegetarian diet is healthy is enjoy a wide variety of foods. It should include plenty of fruit and vegetables, a reasonable amount of milk and dairy products (or calcium fortified alternatives like soya, rice and oat drinks) and some non-dairy sources of protein. These include eggs, beans, pulses, soya products and nuts, as well as mycoprotein products. As with any diet, you should also limit the amounts of foods high in fat and sugar you consume, too.
Before you decide which type of vegetarianism you'd like to explore, it is worth noting that the more restrictive your diet is, the more difficult it can be to get all the nutrients your body needs.
Vegans in particular can lack vitamin B-12 and calcium as they remove many of the natural sources of these nutrients from their diets. However, vegetarians of all specifications should pay close attention to their sources of a number of nutrients.
Calcium , which helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth, is usually provided by consuming milk and dairy products. However, it can also be found in dark green vegetables like turnips, kale and broccoli. There are a number of calcium-enriched products available too, such as juices, cereals and yoghurts.
Vitamin D is also important for strong and healthy bones, which is often found in milk, butter and margarine. You may need to take a vitamin D supplement if you don't consume enough , especially if you have limited exposure to the sun.
Vitamin B-12 can be a problem for vegans as it is found almost exclusively in animal products. It helps to produce red blood cells and prevent anaemia, but a deficiency is often masked by the high amounts of folate in most vegan diets, and is only discovered by the development of severe problems. This can be avoided by using supplements, as well as eating vitamin-enriched cereals, fortified soy products and certain yeast extract-based foods such as Marmite®.
Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids without consuming eggs and fish can be difficult too, although you can find fatty acids in canola oil, walnuts and soybeans. They aren't quite as effective though, so fortified products or supplements are probably a good idea.
Iodine, iron and zinc can also be problematic. You can give yourself an iodine boost by consuming a quarter teaspoon of iodized salt, while zinc is found in cheese and whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ. It is advised that vegetarians almost double the amount of iron they consume.
Perhaps the easiest nutritional deficit to avoid is a lack of protein, which can be solved by eating eggs and dairy, as well a number of plant-based foods. If you are just eating the plant-based foods however, you should eat a variety throughout the day to ensure you get everything that you need. Good sources include soy products and meat substitutes, as well as nuts, legumes, lentils and whole grains.
Tips for getting started
- Gradually reduce your meat intake, and increase the number of fruits and vegetables you eat
- Try old favourite recipes without the meat, and instead add more greenery
- Increase the number of meat-free meals you eat on a weekly basis
- Experiment with meals, browse the internet for recipe suggestions or pick up some vegetarian cookbooks.
Remember, the key to a successful diet is variety, so the more meals you find, the more likely you are to get all the nutrients you need.