Vegetarianism – it’s on the rise again! As more people become aware of the benefits of a plant-based diet, and open their eyes to some of the impacts of large-scale meat production, many want to adopt a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet. Almost everyone can be healthier by choosing more vegetables in their daily diet, but of course with vegetarianism there is potential for some nutrient deficiencies to occur, as there is with any diet. So let’s clarify some terminology, and look at some common nutritional risks associated with vegetarianism, so that you can make fully informed and healthy choices, no matter what you choose to eat.
Vegetarian – doesn’t eat any meat, including fish and chicken. (Also called Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians)
Vegan – doesn’t eat any animal products, including those that come from animals, such as milk/dairy products, and eggs. Some vegans also don’t use honey.
Semi-vegetarian – people who choose to mostly eat vegetarian, but sometimes eat some white meat such as fish or chicken. Usually don’t eat red meat.
Pescetarian – vegetarians who also eat fish.
There is increasing research showing the huge benefits of a vegetarian diet, especially the potential for the prevention of some of the chronic health conditions which are becoming increasingly common in Western countries such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Vegetarian diets are associated with healthier weight and increased longevity.
When eating a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet, you automatically consume more fibre, more Vitamin C, more magnesium, potassium, folate, and plant-based antioxidant compounds. You will also naturally eat less saturated animal fats and carcinogenic compounds such as those in processed meats. It really important that people realise that a vegetarian diet isn’t the only one at risk of nutrient deficiencies- our standard Western diet has huge potential for this too!
Additionally, a vegetarian diet has benefits for our whole planet. Much of our precious forest is converted into pasture land for cattle, and much of our grain grown is fed to livestock. A vegetarian diet means less deforestation, less greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, and it saves water too.
Cautions & Considerations: Watch Out For…
I have many mothers come to see me who are concerned for their teenage daughters who have chosen to become vegetarian. As this is an age when girls are growing and menstruating, iron-deficiency is the first issue that springs to mind for most parents. Just eating the normal family dinner without the meat isn’t going to cut it though! Vegetarian eating takes some adjustment, but opens a whole world of cuisine, that the whole family can benefit from. Rest assured there are so many ways to be an extremely healthy vegetarian, just by keeping a few key things in mind.
This is something to think about if you are not consuming red meat, especially if you are a menstruating woman. The most common symptom of iron-deficiency is fatigue, but also a spacey feeling in the head, breathlessness, frequent infections, low immunity and heavy periods. Vegetarian iron-rich foods are molasses, leafy greens, especially kale, and parsley (if you don’t grow your own, buy big bunches and make a parsley pesto), and dried apricots. It is always good to get iron stores (ferritin) checked regularly and supplements may be needed.
Zinc may also be low in vegetarians, and can be tested easily by your naturopath. Zinc foods such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are good for boosting levels, but the real key here is to not deplete your zinc by drinking too much alcohol or coffee or white flour or sugar!
The healthiest vegans I’ve met were Japanese. Not only did they have lots of fermented foods (potential sources of Vitamin B12), but also an abundance of seaweeds, in all forms. Seaweeds are an important source of trace minerals, especially iodine. Seafood-eaters get iodine from seafoods and fish, but if you are vegetarian or vegan it’s definitely worth exploring the great wide world of seaweeds. Start with some locally harvested NZ karengo fronds, added to soups or stews.
Another consideration for vegans is adequate dietary calcium, which can be addressed with foods such as tahini (sesame seed butter- especially the unhulled variety) and lots of leafy greens. See our recent blog on calcium for more info. The good news is that when you’re vegetarian you tend to be more alkaline and so actually excrete less calcium in your urine. So you may eat less, but you may need a little less too- don’t let that make you lazy though!
For most vegetarians who eat eggs and cheese, B12 is not an issue. B12 is only present in animal foods, and is essential for the DNA of every cell in the human body, and for the maturation of red blood cells.
If your diet is more vegan (no eggs/dairy) it is important to check B12 stores regularly and supplement where needed. B12 injections are the fastest way to boost B12 stores and can be administered by your doctor. B12 sublingual drops are also well-absorbed and less invasive. Some fermented foods may also have traces of Vitamin B12 present, though this is controversial!
Everyone should be keeping an eye on Vitamin D. There is a little bit in some fish, in liver, and in dairy and eggs. Vegetarians are not the only ones at risk of Vitamin D deficiency however. Sunlight is an important source of Vitamin D and many of us are simply inside too much! It’s very safe to supplement with 1-2000iu of Vitamin D daily, especially throughout winter. This can have benefits for immunity and respiratory health, as well as bone health and prevention of some chronic disease.
Protein & Vegetarian Food Combining
While proteins from animal sources are complete, vegetarians must be especially conscientious to ensure they are getting enough protein. Legumes/pulses/beans must always be combined with grains to provide a full complement of amino acids which make up a ‘complete’ protein. Nuts can also be added to complete a protein.
Always combine 2 of the 3 groups for a complete protein:
- GRAINS/SEEDS (use wholegrains where possible; quinoa is especially high in protein)
Eg. baked beans on toast, hummus with crackers, dahl with rice, lentils with quinoa, kidney bean curry with pita breads, tofu or tempeh with brown rice, almond butter on toast, chickpea and couscous salad, falafel souvlaki, etc.
Also any bean or grain combined with an animal protein (eg. cheese, milk), is complete. Eg. muesli with milk, cheese and crackers.
Ideally have a little bit of protein with each meal, or a good sized serving (palm of your hand) twice daily. Eating adequate amounts of protein will help to keep blood sugar balanced so you don’t have energy slumps or sugar cravings, and will help to feed your brain, your body, and your immune system.
So, the take-home message for teens? A vego diet is awesome if it’s done right. Toast and 2-minute noodles and pizza will only take you so far, whether you’re vegetarian or not! Choosing a genuinely vegetable-rich diet is not only a healthy option, it can be of real benefit to you and your planet.
And the message for the rest of us? We can all benefit from eating a little less meat, a lot more vegetables, and keeping in mind what it means to have a healthy balanced diet, no matter what we choose to consume. Swapping a couple of meat-based meals a week for a couple of vegetarian ones can do everyone a favour! And potentially mean that the planet is in better shape, and we’re around longer to enjoy it.