Last week was National Vegetarian Week, a week promoting the benefits of the vegetarian diet. The vegetarian diet has been linked to a lower level of coronary heart disease, a lower risk of colon cancer and also vegetarians have been found to have lower levels of blood pressure. Whilst these benefits may not necessarily lead to a longer life, they are impressive claims for a diet to make.
It has been speculated that the part of the diet responsible for these benefits is an increased vegetable intake, increased fibre intake, or reduced amounts of meat and protein. It is difficult to say definitively what the reason for these benefits is. However, we do know that those on a vegetarian diet are at risk of some nutrient-deficiencies if they do not pay close attention to their diet, such as: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, B12 and B2.
Follow these tips for a healthy vegetarian diet:
- Ensure you are getting enough protein. Have 2-3 servings of plant proteins such as soya and quinoa (the two best sources of plant protein), nuts, beans and pulses. Cheese, milk, dairy products, and Quorn are also good sources of protein (if you eat them).
- Ensure you have enough iron in your diet from sources such as breakfast cereals, dried fruit, beans and lentils, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, nuts, and wholemeal bread.
- Dairy foods are a good source of calcium. If you’re not eating these, ensure you get enough calcium by eating plenty of tofu, fortified soya milk or rice/oat drinks, green leafy vegetables (although not spinach as the calcium is not easily absorbed), brown and white bread, sesame seeds and tahini, nuts, dried fruit.
- Our bodies can make Vitamin D from sunlight during the spring and summer but at other times ensure you are getting enough through your diet in the form of: most margarines, a few fortified breakfast cereals and soya products, eggs. Otherwise a supplement may be necessary.
- If you’re eating eggs and dairy foods then you should be getting enough B12 and B2. Vegans will need to have fortified foods such as yeast extract, soya products, breakfast cereals, certain oat/rice drinks (check labels), or consider taking a supplement.
- You may also be at risk of selenium deficiency. Brazil nuts are a good source.
- Include small amounts of iodised salt for your iodine source or look for a multivitamin with one in.
- If you feel you cannot meet all these requirements through diet a good multivitamin supplement may be a good idea. Ensure it contains the nutrients you need but do not take more than the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA). You may need to take a calcium supplement separate to a multivitamin as these supplements are quite bulky.
- Additional dietary advice may be needed in pregnancy, breastfeeding, weaning.
The benefits of a vegetarian diet must also include peace of mind from knowing that animals have not suffered, or suffered less for your food.
An alternative to complete vegetarianism is to reduce the amount of meat you eat. For example, have vegetarian days (2-3 per week) and ensure that the meat you eat is from well-sourced farms (look for labels such as farm-assured, organic and British). The U.K. has stringent welfare laws which are not always followed in other countries, and being transported across countries or continents is not a good experience for live animals.
For more information on vegetarian diets go to: