How to be a healthy vegetarian
By Nicole Rumsey, Dietitian at Thrive Wellness Centre
This is a common question I am asked at Thrive Wellness Centre, particularly by parents with young or teenage children who have recently decided they don’t want to eat meat anymore. There are many reasons someone may choose to follow a vegetarian diet, and there are various forms of vegetarianism. With careful planning, it is certainly possible for a vegetarian diet to provide all of the essential nutrients in order to thrive. However, if not carefully planned, nutrient deficiencies may occur.
What is the difference between vegetarian and vegan?
Firstly, it is important to recognise that a vegetarian diet usually includes dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, milk) and/or eggs. This type of diet is termed lacto-ovo vegetarian (dairy and eggs) or lacto-vegetarian (no eggs). A vegan diet does not include any animal-based food sources at all. One other diet that includes fish and seafood but not other meat sources, is termed pesco-vegetarian. As you can see, there are many forms of vegetarianism, therefore the nutritional approach will vary between each individual.
Which nutrients do I need to focus on?
When we eliminate animal flesh/muscle from our diets, we need to ensure an appropriate source of the following nutrients is replaced:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Some minerals (including iron, calcium and zinc)
Key nutrients and good food sources
Protein: A daily intake of protein is required so that the body can grow and repair tissue such as muscles, skin and hair and body cells. Protein is made from basic building blocks called amino acids. Some of these amino acids cannot be made by the body; these essential amino acids must be obtained from our diet. Animal products (including dairy and eggs) have all nine essential amino acids in large enough quantities for our body. Vegetable proteins tend to be lower in these essential amino acids. Some good plant sources of protein include: legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, soy products, whole grains (in breads, cereals). Soy is the only complete vegetable protein.
Vitamin B12: This vitamin is essential to help maintain healthy nerves. It also helps to make red blood cells and DNA. The only food sources of B12 are from animal-based products, unless you purchase B12-fortified foods. In Australia, some soy milks, yeast spread and vegetarian meat substitutes such as soy-based burgers and sausages are fortified with B12. In some circumstances, vitamin B12 supplementation (tablets daily or injections yearly) is recommended. If you are still eating eggs and/or dairy foods regularly, supplementation is not necessary.
Vitamin D: This fat-soluble vitamin is essential in bone growth, cell repair and metabolism. The main food sources of vitamin D include oily fish, cheese, egg yolks and fortified foods (some dairy products, soy milk and cereals). For those following a vegetarian diet, tofu and fortified products is the best way to ensure adequate vitamin D intake from food.
Minerals: Iron, calcium and zinc are essential minerals that must be included when following a vegetarian diet. Iron enables oxygen to be carried in our blood and can lead to anaemia if levels become inadequate. The iron in plant-based foods is less available for our bodies to absorb; therefore, consuming foods high in vitamin C will help your body absorb more iron. Food sources of iron include eggs, legumes, tofu, nuts, cooked spinach, wholemeal bread and iron-fortified cereals. Calcium is required for strong bones and teeth, while zinc is essential for immune function, metabolism and skin repair. Calcium can be found in dairy foods, soy-based products and legumes. Food sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, oats, wholemeal bread and zinc-fortified cereals. Fruits and vegetables have little zinc.
Meal suggestions for a vegetarian diet
Eggs on wholemeal or wholegrain toast
Fortified cereal with soy/cow’s milk
Shakshuka (healthy slow-cooked tomato, onion, egg and bean dish)
Quinoa and tofu salad
Vegetable protein and salad wrap
Roast pumpkin, feta and cous cous salad
Wholegrain crackers with cheese, avocado and salad
Vegetable and barley-based soups
Vegetable protein burgers
Nicole Rumsey is a Dietitian here at Thrive Wellness Centre. Click here to book an appointment with her.
All of our friendly practitioners work evenings and/or weekends to assist making and attending appointments that little bit easier for you. For any queries, please contact our office on (08) 9478 3869.
We will provide a recipe for shakshuka in another post