Apparently according to new figures, one in three of us now eats a semi vegetarian diet, with 39% of women choosing to eat less meat. Sometimes the choice is made from an ethical and environmental point of view and sometimes for health reasons.
Generally it is said that vegetarians and vegans have a lower body mass index, better control of blood pressure and blood glucose, less inflammation and lower cholesterol levels compared with non vegetarians.
But if is the way your diet is going you need to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the important nutrients.
Protein is an important part of your diet and vegetarians can take their protein in different foods from meat eaters. Protein helps maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. Eggs and dairy products are good sources, and you don’t need to eat large amounts to meet your protein needs. You can also get sufficient protein from plant-based foods if you eat a variety of them throughout the day. Plant sources include soy products and meat substitutes, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Taking red meat out of your diet can sometimes mean that you are missing out on important iron in your diet as it is a crucial component of red blood cells. Dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables, and dried fruit are good sources of iron. Iron isn’t as easily absorbed from plant sources, the recommended intake of iron for vegetarians is almost double that recommended for non vegetarians. By eating eating foods rich in vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli, at the same time as you’re eating iron-containing foods you will help to increase the amount absorbed.
Zinc is an essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in cell division and in formation of proteins but it is also is not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal products. Cheese is a good option if you eat dairy products. Plant sources of zinc include whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts and wheat germ.
Another vitamin you may need to top up is Vitamin B12 which is necessary to produce red blood cells and prevent anaemia. Eggs, dairy products, B12 fortified dairy milk, yeast extract and fortified cereals could help with this.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health. Omega 3 enriched eggs, pumpkin and hemp seeds, walnuts, ground flaxseed and soya oil and soya based foods such as tofu are good sources of essential fatty acids. Evidence suggests that vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids may not have the same benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease as those in oily fish and you could consider taking a supplement.
Calcium helps build and maintain strong teeth and bones, milk and dairy foods are highest in calcium. But good plant sources are dark green vegetables, such as turnip and collard greens, kale, and broccoli, when eaten in sufficient quantities. Calcium-enriched and fortified products, including juices, cereals, soy milk, soy yogurt and tofu, are other options.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in bone health. It is added to cow’s milk, some brands of soy and rice milk, and some cereals and margarines. Again if you don’t eat enough fortified foods and have limited sun exposure, you may need a vitamin D supplement (one derived from plants).
If you are considering a vegetarian diet, make sure you pay attention to these important nutrients and don’t rely too heavily on processed foods, which can be high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium. Your personal trainer can advise on your dietary needs and with a little planning a vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children and teenagers. The key is to be aware of your nutritional needs so that you plan a diet that meets them.