I thought I would give a bit of an insight into vegetarian diets, and ways to ensure a vegetarian diet is still nutritious.
A vegetarian diet usually involves avoiding animal meat such as red meat, poultry, fish and seafood, but it can also involve excluding animal milk and eggs. Variations include:
- Lacto ovo vegetarians avoid all animal meats but include milk and eggs.
- Lacto vegetarians avoid all animal meats and eggs but will include milk.
- Vegans avoid all animal products and can often also avoid honey, leather, wool and foods containing gelatine (jelly beans, jelly and marshmallow).
- Semi vegetarians avoid red meats, but may include fish, and/or chicken.
Being a vegetarian can become a restrictive eating plan if you are not smart about it. To ensure you are meeting your nutritional requirements it is so important to experiment with different recipes, it is a good idea to invest in a few vegetarian cookbooks to continue to make your foods delicious, appetising and nutritious.
Variety is the key as in anyone’s diet but particularly for vegetarians. Our bodies require eight essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for growth and repair, these are essential from the diet as our bodies cannot make them. Only soy protein and animal tissues contain the complete set of these essential amino acids so in order to get complete protein, vegetarians need to combine different protein sources as well as eat a range of protein foods over the course of the day. So if you are a vegetarian where does the protein come from?
Vegetarian protein includes nuts, tofu, legumes such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas and dairy including yoghurt, milk, cheese and eggs. How to include these in a meal?
- Nuts and seeds – toss nuts through a salad or stir fry, include crushed nuts in a burger patty, include grained bread.
- Tofu – have marinated tofu on a burger or sandwich, include tofu cubes in curries and stir-fries. Tofu is like a sponge so will take on the flavours of the dish.
- Legumes – include in soups, curries and salads. Try a bean nachos. Spread hommus on your sandwich, wrap or have on crackers.
- Dairy – try quiche, fritters, vegetable lasagne, scrambled and poached eggs.
Essential fats including omega 3 and omega 6 can also not be made by our bodies and need to be obtained from the diet. It’s not difficult for vegetarians to get enough omega 6 into their diet as this type of fat is found in nuts and seeds but getting enough omega 3 can be more difficult as omega 3 is most commonly found in fish oils, seafood and lean red meats. In order to get the omega 3 fats into your diet include walnuts, walnut oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and soybeans into your diet as these are all sources of omega 3.
Other nutrients to be concerned about include:
Vitamin B12 – Deficiency can be a real concern particularly for vegans as vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. I would encourage you to choose foods fortified in B12 such as certain breakfast cereals, Veemite and soy milk to obtain vitamin B12 or take a supplement.
Iron – As red meat is one of the richest sources of iron in the diet when this is avoided iron levels can be a concern. Plant-based foods still contain iron but this type of iron is not as easily absorbed by our bodies as what the iron in red meat is. Eating foods that are high in vitamin C (including dark green vegetables, capsicum, oranges, strawberries) as part of a meal enhances the absorption of the iron in plant based foods. Plant-based sources of iron include tofu, some dried fruits, green leafy vegetables, oats and legumes. So try some strawberries on your cereal, or bok choy and capsicum in your tofu stir fry to make the most out of your iron rich foods.
Calcium – If you still include milk, cheese and yoghurt into your diet then calcium is less of a concern. For those who avoid these foods choose other foods sources that are higher in calcium such as dark green vegetables, almonds, tofu, soy beans and soy milk and yoghurt that is fortified with calcium.
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