Meeting essential nutrients on a vegetarian diet
The balancing act
It’s common to hear concerns that vegetarian diets lack essential nutrients but it’s not a reason to dismiss meat-free meals (despite what your carnivore-loving friends may tell you). In reality, all healthy eating takes knowledge and planning. A diet containing meat can be just as unbalanced or just as healthy as a vegetarian or flexitarian diet.
If you’re interested in pursuing a vegetarian diet, read on to find the answers to some commonly asked questions:
Is meat the best source of protein?
Meat is a good source but it’s not the only option. Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas etc), soy products, grains, nuts, and seeds are excellent sources of protein, as well as fibre, minerals, and phytonutrients. Vegetarians have no problem getting enough protein and – contrary to outdated advice – do not need to consciously combine different plant proteins in one meal. That’s because your body has a pool of amino acid and with regular, varied plant-protein intake you can easily get what your body needs.
Are vegetarians lacking essential nutrients?
A well-balanced vegetarian diet rich in legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetables can provide all your essential nutrients, just keep an eye on:
- Calcium - Found in nuts, legumes, tofu made with calcium, fortified soy drinks and green leafy veg.
- Vitamin D - Known as the sunshine vitamin because the body's main source comes from sunlight. However, some foods provide significant amounts of Vitamin D as well including fortified soy milk and cereals and mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light.
- Vitamin B12 -Found almost exclusively in animal foods, with only small amounts in mushrooms. Strict vegetarians and vegans need to eat vitamin-B12 fortified foods (such as fortified soy beverages) or take a B12 supplement.
- Zinc - Found in whole grains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified cereal products and dairy products (for lacto-vegetarians). Phytates (found in unrefined plant foods) can stop zinc from being absorbed, but common cooking and processing methods can minimise these effects. For example, soaking legumes and then cooking them will reduce the levels of phytates and improve zinc absorption.
- Iron - Can be obtained in adequate amounts by vegetarians if they eat a varied and well-balanced diet. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, iron-fortified cereals, and green leafy vegetables can provide an adequate iron intake. Vitamin C can enhance iron absorption from plant foods, a process that is carefully regulated by the gut.
- Omega-3s - These are a little trickier as most vegetarian diets exclude oily fish (a source of long-chain, heart-friendly omega-3s). Vegetarians should include adequate amounts of short-chain omega-3s such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Also, talk to a health professional about omega-3 supplements from microalgae.
Vegetarian and pregnant?
Vegetarians and vegans need to take particular care to balance their eating plan during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and when raising infants and young children. See your GP or health professional for regular blood checks and advice.