Vegetarians are people who don’t eat meat, or seafood ... as well as eggs, or dairy foods. Vegans follow a form of vegetarianism, but consume only plant foods. Well-planned vegetarian diets have many health benefits and can provide all the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for a long and healthy life.
There are 3 main types of vegetarianism, namely;
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians –> those who avoid meat and seafood, but include dairy foods (such as milk and eggs) & plant foods;
- Lacto-vegetarians –> those who avoid meat, seafood & eggs, but include dairy foods & plant foods;
- Vegans –> those who consume only plant foods.
- Coronary artery disease;
- Hypertension (high blood pressure);
- Some types of cancer.
A vegetarian, or vegan, need to plan their diet to make sure it includes all the essential nutrients. The wider the variety of foods they eat, the easier it will be to meet their nutritional requirements. Some essential dietary requirements, which could be missing from a vegetarian diet if it isn’t carefully planned, include :
- Minerals (including iron, calcium and zinc);
- Vitamin B12;
- Vitamin D.
Consuming various sources of amino acids throughout the day should provide the complete complement of protein. Generally, lacto-ovo vegetarians and lacto-vegetarian diets meet, or exceed their protein requirements, but some vegan diets may be low in protein.
Some good plant sources of protein include:
- Legumes such as beans, peas & lentils;
- Nuts & seeds;
- Soy products including soy beverages, tempeh & tofu;
- Whole (cereal) grains.
It is also important for a vegetarian, or a vegan to ensure that they get the right amount of essential dietary minerals. Some of these minerals and their suggested food sources include :
- Iron –> vegetarian & vegan diets are generally high in iron
from plant foods. However, this iron is not absorbed, as well as the iron
in meat. Good food sources of iron that are suitable for vegetarians
& vegans include cereals fortified with iron, whole grains, legumes,
tofu, green leafy vegetables & dried fruits. Combining these foods
with foods high in vitamin C & food acids like fruit & vegetables
will help your body absorb the iron;
- Zinc –> performs essential functions in the body,
including the development of immune system cells. Good food sources of
zinc include nuts, tofu, miso, legumes, wheatgerm and wholegrain foods;
- Calcium –> is needed for strong bones & teeth. Good
food sources of calcium include dairy products, fortified cereals &
fruit juices, fortified soymilk, tahini & some brands of tofu. Leafy
dark green vegetables, almonds &
Brazil nuts also contain calcium;
- Iodine –> our bodies need iodine for the thyroid gland
& other associated hormones to function normally. Iodised salt is the
most common source of iodine in the Western diet. Iodine is found in
seafood, which is a rich source of this element. Sea vegetables
(seaweed) also contain iodine, but are also high in salt.
Vitamin B12 can be found in dairy products & eggs. There are fortified vegan foods such as some soy beverages, & some vegetarian sausages & burgers. If vegans don’t get their B12 requirement from these foods, they are advised to take B12 supplements. Vitamin B12 absorption becomes less efficient as we age, so supplements may also be needed by older vegetarians. Mushrooms, tempeh, miso and sea vegetables are often claimed to be a source of B12. However, this is not accurate. They contain a compound with a similar structure to B12, but it doesn’t work like B12 in the body. They may contain some B12 on their surface, from soil (bacteria) or fertiliser contamination.
The main source of vitamin D for most Australians is sunlight. There are few foods that contain significant amounts of vitamin D. There is very little vitamin D in most people’s diets unless they eat fatty fish, eggs, liver, or foods fortified with vitamin D (such as margarine). Fortified low-fat & skim milk is another source of vitamin D, but the levels are low. Vegans can increase their chances of avoiding vitamin D deficiency by consuming fortified soy milk and cereals. As the sun is also a major source of vitamin D, dietary intake is only important when exposure to UV light from the sun is inadequate –> for e.g, in people who are housebound, or whose clothing covers almost all of their skin.
Well-planned vegan & vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of a person’s life. However, special care needs to be taken with young children.
Infants consuming breastmilk, or infant formula usually have their nutritional needs met. On weaning, it is important to include protein & energy-rich foods for growth, such as mashed tofu, or cottage cheese. Later, add cheese, cow’s milk, full-fat soy milk & legumes.
One way to ensure that vegetarian children meet their energy needs is to give them frequent meals & snacks. It is particularly important that vegan children have energy & nutrient-dense foods regularly (such as full-fat soy drink, tofu, mashed avocado, tahini spread & vegetables cooked with oil).
Some people choose to become vegetarian, or vegan as a healthy lifestyle choice, or for ethical reasons. There are also sound social reasons to be a vegetarian. Livestock production accounts for nearly 80 % of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture worldwide. It also places a much heavier burden on water, land & fossil fuel resources than grains & other crops.
Things to remember
- Vegetarians don’t eat meat for a range of health, environmental, ethical, religious or economic reasons;
- A well-planned vegetarian diet can meet nutritional needs during all stages of life.