• Helen Phillips

3 Nutrition Needs to Know when Switching to a Vegetarian Diet

A lot of my Cheesecake Runner Facebook page fans are vegetarians and I’m often getting asked for more exciting recipes to add to their repertoire.

I’m not a big meat eater and over the years made tons of “meat free” meals, but it wasn’t until I started to create dishes for my fans that I really researched hard and paid attention to the nutrition in those meals to make sure that they’re as healthy as they can be.

So I’ve pulled this post together to review what a vegetarian or vegan diet is, and why people chose these diets, some of the pitfalls of adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet and how to ensure a vegetarian or vegan diet is as healthy as it can be.

What is a vegetarian or vegan diet?

A vegetarian diet includes vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and sometimes dairy and eggs, whilst cutting out all meat or fish. A vegan eats only plant and fungi based foods and doesn’t eat dairy and eggs as well as meat and fish.

Some vegetarians also don’t eat eggs or milk and some also include fish and seafood in their diets.

Why do people adopt this type of diet?

There are numerous reasons people adopt a vegetarian diet. Some do it for the beneficial effects on the environment, or animal welfare reasons, others for health or religious beliefs.

But can a vegetarian or vegan diet be healthy?

As a student lots of my friends “went vegetarian”, purely from eliminating meat from their diet, without consideration of any dietary or nutrition deficiencies that might arise.

My final year housemate Ann’s diet consisted of jam sandwiches, “Lynda McCartney” frozen sausages and yoghurts, and she ate very little fruit and veg. Other friends cut out “real meat” but “cooked” (microwaved!) refined and processed vegetarian “meat substitute” foods and ready meals succumbing to bacon sandwiches at the weekends!

As a keen cook I flirted with batch cooking vats of veg in tomato sauce, made into pasta sauce or vegetarian chilli with beans. In comparison to my friends I liked to think that my take on a vegetarian meal was the healthier option!

Maybe I was right. The real benefit from a plant based vegetarian diet comes when the diet is built around whole unrefined and unprocessed foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. But a proper vegetarian diet is based on eating mostly foods that come from plants, not meat-free processed junk foods, which is something many vegetarians, like my house-mate Ann, do!

You’re eliminating meat and cutting out all the nutrients from meat, that cant be healthy!

As soon as you start to eliminate foods from your diet, any foods, you need to take a look at what might be missing and plan a way to ensure you’re getting the optimum nutrition from the foods you’re eating to fill any nutrition gaps.

By not eating meat vegetarians and especially vegans need to pay close attention to ensuring they’re getting sufficient protein, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, calcium and Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.

So let’s take a look at the plant based sources of these nutrients and ways of including them in a vegetarian and vegan diet.

How do you get protein in your diet from not eating meat?

Despite the current trend to exclude carbs and load up on protein most people only need around 1g of protein per Kg of body weight in their daily diet. So a 70Kg individual needs to eat just 70g of protein per day.

If you’re a vegetarian and eat dairy and eggs this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, with 2 eggs providing 12g of protein. But it’s harder, but not impossible, for vegans to get all the essential amino acids required from plant only sources.

Good plant based sources of protein include beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains such as quinoa. The issue with these plant sources is that the amino acids that make up proteins are less readily adsorbed and each plant source is deficient in an essential amino acid. This can be overcome by eating meals combining plant based protein sources, for example beans on wholegrain toast, lentil curry with whole grain rice.

Many athletes, including endurance runners, are vegetarian or vegan and with careful dietary planning they are able to ensure sufficient protein in their diet. If you’re a vegetarian runner I can highly recommend the book “No Meat Athlete” by Matt Fraizer, a vegan ultra marathoner for information on a healthy vegan diet and how to optimize it for sports performance.

What about essential vitamins and minerals?

The B vitamins are important for energy, hormone production and overall health. Vitamin B12 is found in dairy and eggs, so vegetarians who include dairy and eggs in their diet should be ok, but it’s more difficult for vegans to get Vitamin B12. Deficiency in Vitamin B12 can lead to anaemia and damage to the nervous system, so if you’re vegan you should consider a vitamin B12 supplement if you think you might be lacking.

Meat, and especially red meat and offal, is an omnivores main source of iron, which can be lacking in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Iron can also be obtained from plant sources, such as green leafy vegetables. However, due to the low availability of iron from these sources, for best adsorption it’s recommended to cook in an iron-cooking pan, eat with vitamin C rich foods and avoid caffeine (which inhibits iron adsorption).

Calcium is another mineral that can be deficient in a vegan diet. Vegetarians should be able meet their daily calcium needs from milk, but vegans should include non-dairy milk, broccoli and soybeans in their diet for calcium.

Anything else?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health and are hard to obtain from a fish and egg free diet. Good vegan sources include flax, hemp, walnuts and green leafy vegetables. But once again, vegans who don’t eat fish and eggs should consider supplementation.

So is a vegetarian or vegan diet healthier?

In summary being a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean that you will automatically eat a healthier diet. But with careful planning and by following a diet based on whole foods including vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, avoiding processed meat substitutes and “vegetarian” or “vegan” processed junk foods and ensuring your consume enough protein, vitamin B12, Omega-3 fatty acids and essential minerals vegetarians and vegans can definitely achieve a healthy balanced diet.

Check out www.wentworth-wellness.co.uk/blog/category/Vegetarian for a selection of nutritious vegetarian recipes.