A question I often hear is whether a vegetarian diets is healthier than an omnivorous one and the answer is…. yes and no. Any diet, be it vegan, vegetarian, or otherwise needs to be balanced in order to be beneficial. Although vegetarian diets are often deemed the “healthier” option, this will not be the case if vital nutrients are missing.
Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, the same rules apply: A balanced diet needs to supply the correct ratio of macronutrients (i.e. protein, carbohydrate and fat) to main micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
My personal preference is to go half and half (occasional small portions of organic lean cuts of beef and poultry, oily fish, and plenty of fruit, veg, beans and pulses). Still, there is no reason why a vegan or vegetarian diet cannot supply all the nutrients needed for optimum health. A balanced vegetarian diet is usually full of alkalizing green vegetables, fibre filled beans and pulses and certain to provide your 5 + a day. However, vegetarians (especially newer converts) need to be aware of what macro and micronutrients are necessary for a balanced diet and to ensure that they get the correct plant based source.
There are a few challenges for those on vegetarian/vegan diets, the most obvious being getting adequate protein. Meat, poultry, fish and dairy are all good and obvious sources of protein, but for a meat-free diet you have to look a little harder. Vegetarians sometimes subsist largely on pasta and vegetables, which is great, but won’t supply the necessary protein for good health on its own.
Another nutrient that poses a challenge is omega 3, the essential fatty acid needed for healthy brain, skin and hormones, most commonly found in oily fish.
Other micronutrients most commonly lacking in a vegetarian/vegan diet are iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
Vegetarian sources of the above nutrients include:
Sources of non-animal protein fall into 3 categories:
Nuts and seeds: Sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, linseeds, brazil nuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pine nuts.
Beans/pulses: Peas, beans, lentils, and soya bean products such as organic soya milk and tofu.
Grains: Oats, corn, wheat, rye, barley, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice.
Eggs & Cheese: For ovo-lacto-vegetarians who have not excluded them from their diet eggs are a good source of protein as well as iron, vitamin D and essential fats. Cheese can be a good form of calcium and protein, but is high in fat so don’t go too crazy with cheese or cheesy sauces.
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are good sources of omega-3. I recommend 1 tablespoon of milled flax seeds or 1 dessertspoon of flax oil per day. Rapeseed oil, hempseed oil, olive oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are all further sources of essential fats.
Animal foods are the primary and most bioavailable source of Vitamin B12. Vegetarian sources include fortified yeast extract, fortified soya milk, fortified breakfast cereal, eggs, milk and yoghurt. B12 is best taken with folic acid/folate. Folate sources include green leafy vegetables, especially spinach.
Green Leafy vegetables such as broccoli, parsley and watercress, orange juice, sesame seeds and tahini, fortified soya milk, dried fruit such as figs, almonds, and brazil nuts are all good vegan sources of calcium.
Pulses such as beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables such as watercress, parsley and kale, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, tofu, whole grains and blackstrap molasses all have good iron content. Iron is more easily absorbed when eaten with foods rich in vitamin C, so a good example of an iron-rich snack would be a handful of pumpkin seeds and a satsuma.
Some people like to supplement their diet with a good vegetarian multivitamin. This should include B vitamins, in particular, vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin D, iodine and selenium. There are plenty of multivitamins specifically formulated for vegans and vegetarians, so ask at your local health food store.