With more and more of us going vegetarian in the quest for a healthier lifestyle, there is still some confusion as to which are the best foods to put on the menu.
Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer explores what makes up a healthy vegetarian diet.
Let’s start by looking at what being a vegetarian means. Vegetarians eat all plant-based foods, plus eggs and dairy produce. They don’t eat any white or red meat. Some people choose to eat fish and are known as pescatarians, while vegans eat only foods of plant origin.
The long-term health benefits of a varied, balanced vegetarian diet can be far-reaching. Apart from helping with weight management, one of the major advantages is to the digestive system; plant-based foods naturally contain more fibre which means the bowels and, therefore the digestive system run more smoothly. This has a knock-on effect on the heart; a high fibre diet helps eliminate cholesterol and blood fats, therefore vegetarians appear to have a lower risk of cardiovascular problems.
Here is a list of things that vegetarians need to be aware of in their diet.
With red and white meat eliminated from the diet, vegetarians need to obtain protein mainly from plant sources. The body is largely made up of protein so it’s hugely important to eat enough of it every day. Great plant sources include quinoa (a delicious grain that looks like couscous), all types of bean including soya (tofu is a great soy-based protein source), lentils, rice, nuts and seeds.
Plant protein, however, does not include all the essential amino acids needed by the body on a daily basis, but combining grains and beans (not necessarily in the same meal) gets round this. Vegetarians can of course still eat dairy produce and eggs, the latter being the most complete protein source available.
Red meat is the best source of the mineral iron, but beans, lentils, wholemeal flour, oats, dried fruits, egg yolks and green leafy vegetables all provide good amounts. And if you eat any of these foods with other fruits or vegetables containing vitamin C, the iron is even better absorbed.
Essential for energy production and forming red blood cells, vitamin B12 is only available in animal foods. Dairy produce and eggs, however, both contain some vitamin B12 as do certain fortified foods such as soya milk, breakfast cereals and yeast extract (if you like it, Marmite is an absolute must on the vegetarian menu!) If the diet does not contain any animal produce at all, it is a good idea to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D
These two nutrients work so closely together that they need to be mentioned together. Dairy produce is an excellent source of calcium, but vitamin D is not widely available in foods, coming mainly from the action of sunlight on the skin. If there’s not enough vitamin D being produced in the body, however, any calcium eaten will not be getting to where it’s needed, namely the teeth and bones.
Milk does contain a little vitamin D and dark green leafy vegetables and sesame seeds are also great sources of calcium. To ensure you get your daily calcium and vitamin D quota, however, the best advice is to holiday abroad regularly and eat plenty of dairy. Due to the lack of sunlight we experience here at home, Public Health England advise that everyone living in the UK should take a vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months.