Can a meat free diet be a healthy one?

Do non meat eaters get the nutrition they need?

People who don’t eat meat are perfectly able to follow a nutritious diet if they make sensible food choices, although substituting meat with cheese is not the route to good health! Everyone (meat-eaters included) should aim to eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, fiber and ‘good’ fats. Here's our guide to healthy meat-free eating ...


There are several kinds of meat-free diets. The most common are:

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: this describes the majority of vegetarians. Meat, poultry and fish are excluded, but eggs and dairy products are still eaten.

Lacto-vegetarian: Meat, poultry, fish and eggs are excluded; dairy products are still eaten.

Vegan: All animal products are excluded, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products.

So what nutrients do animal products provide and what are alternative sources?

Meat, poultry and fish provide a number of nutrients including protein, iron and zinc, while dairy products are a source of calcium. If you choose not to eat these foods, you should be aware of other sources of these nutrients.

Protein

Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are used to make enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Proteins also have other functions, for example, to help build bone and hair.

Animal protein is ‘complete’, which means that it contains the nine essential amino acids that can’t be made by the human body. Vegetarians can find this complete protein in eggs and milk.

Plant foods tend not to contain complete proteins, but when eaten together with other plant foods can join forces to create a complete protein profile. Vegans especially should try to mix grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetables in each meal or at least throughout the day. This can be as simple as eating more beans or a chickpea curry with rice.

Iron

Iron’s main job is to transport oxygen around the body in red blood cells. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue and apathy, and if severe, can lead to anemia. Women are particularly susceptible to deficiency because their iron requirements are higher than men’s (due to the blood they lose during menstruation).

Iron from meat is more easily absorbed than iron from plants. That said, wholegrains, legumes, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits are also good sources of iron. The citric acid and vitamin C in orange juice increase iron absorption, so vegetarians would be wise to drink a glass with iron-rich foods. On the other hand, tannins in tea reduce absorption, so it’s best to wait half an hour or so after eating before brewing a cup.

Zinc

Zinc is a major player in the body’s immune system and metabolic processes. Around 50 per cent of zinc in most of the population's diet comes from meat. Plant sources include green leafy vegetables, seeds, pulses and wholegrains.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting oils, most commonly found in oily fish, can help prevent heart disease. Linseed and rapeseed oils are good sources for vegetarians.

Calcium

Calcium builds bone and teeth and is also involved in muscle contraction. Dairy products are a great source of calcium, but vegans may require other sources such as green leafy vegetables, soya, seeds, nuts and fortified foods like soya milk, flour and cereal.

Vitamin B12

This nutrient can only be found in animal products; therefore vegans are at risk of deficiency. Vitamin B12 is important for the nervous system and cell production, particularly red blood cells. Some foods such as soya milk, cereals and meat-substitutes are fortified with B12; vegans should try to eat these foods regularly and should also consider supplements.

Health benefits of a meat-free diet

Vegetarians have been shown to have lower rates of heart disease, type II diabetes, constipation and high blood pressure than meat-eaters. They are also likely to be leaner. However, researchers are not sure if this is due to the diet itself or the healthy lifestyle that vegetarians are more likely to follow e.g. not smoking, low alcohol intake and regular exercise.

Comments (9)

  • Sue 'I'd go as far as saying a meat-free diet is more healthy. The quality of the meat that is sold in British supermarkets is a disgrace and I have no idea why they get away with it. Did you see the demo Jamie Oliver did for his school kids to show them what was in reconstituted chicken? Healthy? I don't think so.'

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  • Lady_K 'Yep too right, sausages - they are full of heads, shoulders, knees and toes. But there is good meat out there, it's just people are not prepared to pay for the good stuff!'

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  • HAN75 'Definately - I've been a vegetarian for 11 years and I can assure you, I am very healthy! '

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  • TonySmith2 ' I just don't get the whole meat-free thing. We have teeth made for eating meat, otherwise we'd all have teeth like rabbits - not a good thought. '

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  • PaulRitchie2 ' Really think I'd struggle without eating meat. Admittedly some meat like pork and beef can be a bit ropey at times - but those bacon butties just get me every time. And without meat, what on earth would you put on a sandwich?'

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  • adam_s 'i agree.... i cudn't live without steak and chips! i don't like cheap sandwich meat in supermarkets tho..... Best 2 get stuff off the bone from the meat counter.'

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  • TonySmith2 'In recent weeks I've actually been put off some meat products having seen how some of them are made and what goes into them. Then again you could probably argue that it's isn't actually meat anyway! '

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  • Chris_Whitehead 'I'm sure it could be ok provided you have a good bit of variety in your vegeterian diet. Personally, I really couldn't do without it as I'm not really much of a fuit and veg eater in truth and some of the other vegeterian options are just not appetising.'

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  • strapping_young_lad 'im quite lucky, im a farmer's son and my parents still run the farm as a beef and sheep enterprise, and now and again i get a beef joint or steaks grown on the farm yes they are done by a butcher! loovley too, hereford beef! at least i knew where it came from unlike the packaged stuff from the shops what has surprised me is that i went to some local supermarkets and one in particular had NO free range chickens! blimey! didnt the hugh fearnley programme do nothing for the industry's conscience?'

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