Vegetarian diets - how good are they?

Well planned vegetarian meals can provide you with all the nutrients you need for a good and healthy life.

The recent paper on the Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets confirmed yet again that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate…and are appropriate for all stages of life.”

Like many plant based diets, they can offer many benefits - high in fibre, low in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals.

All plant based diets focus on plants:

  • Vegans eat no red meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs

  • Vegetarians include lacto-ovo vegetarians who drink milk and/or eat eggs but no red meat, fish or poultry, and pesco-vegetarians who eat fish, milk and eggs but no red meat and poultry

  • Semi-vegetarians eat red meat, poultry and fish less than once per week and these include the Mediterranean and Asian diets.

Benefits

1. Protein

Protein is important for growth and the repair of your body’s cells. By eating a variety of plant proteins throughout the day and enough calories to maintain body weight, you'll get all the protein you need. Good sources of plant protein include:

  • Legumes such as lentils, red kidney beans, chickpeas

  • Wholegrains such as whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth grain

  • Soy foods, including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yoghurts, dehydrated soy or textured vegetable protein, soy burgers or sausages

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Dairy products and eggs (optional animal sources of protein).

2. Iron

Iron is an essential mineral needed by your body to transport oxygen and produce energy. There are two different types of iron found in food, haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found only in animal products, and non-haem mostly in plant foods. You can boost your absorption of non-haem iron by:

  • eating wholegrains and iron-fortified cereals, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables daily

  • including vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, capsicum, broccoli and cabbage with each meal to help increase the amount of iron your body absorbs

  • avoiding tea, coffee, cocoa and red wines with your main meals as these will reduce your iron absorption.

3. Calcium

Calcium is an important nutrient for healthy bones and teeth. It also helps blood clotting, and nerve and muscle function. Calcium absorption is increased if you have good levels of vitamin D.

You can increase your calcium intake by:

  • consuming dairy, or dairy free milks (soy, nut or rice milk) fortified with calcium on your breakfast cereal, in cooking, hot drinks, a smoothie or when making homemade desserts

  • including other plant-based sources of calcium, such as almonds, unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste), amaranth grain, dried figs, calcium-set tofu, Asian greens, broccoli, kale and collard greens regularly.

4. Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium into your bones and is good for boosting your mood and immune system.

Try to increase your Vitamin D levels by exposing your skin to sunlight in the early mornings or late afternoons to prevent sun burn. The Cancer Council recommends a few minutes of sun each day during the summer and longer time periods during the winter. But always play it safe by using the SunSmart App and applying extra sun protection on days when the UV levels are high. Food sources of vitamin D include:

  • vitamin D irradiated mushrooms

  • vitamin D fortified foods including margarine and some milks and dairy alternatives

  • eggs and oily fish.

5. Zinc

Zinc is needed for a healthy immune system and wound healing. The phytates in wholegrains, wheat bran and legumes can reduce the amount of zinc your body absorbs. However, by using normal cooking or processing methods such as leavening (yeast in breads), soaking, sprouting, or fermenting these foods you reduce the phytate level and increase your zinc absorption.

Tips for increasing your zinc intake include:

  • consuming nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, tempeh, brown rice and wholegrains regularly

  • choosing wholegrain breads and cereals over more refined varieties, as they naturally contain more zinc

  • soaking dry legumes before cooking them

  • using sprouted legumes like mung beans and lentils on sandwiches and salads.

6. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is required to make your DNA, red blood cells, and a protective layer around nerve cells. Spirulina, chlorella, and nutritional yeast will not be able to provide your body with reliable amounts of Vitamin B12. The active form of Vitamin B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods such as meat, dairy and eggs, however, many plant based food alternatives are now fortified with B12.

Ways to increase your vitamin B12 intake, include:

  • eating eggs and drinking dairy or vitamin B12 fortified dairy free milks

  • looking for other fortified food alternatives that have added vitamin B12 like soy burgers, soy schnitzels and some yeast spreads (like Sanitarium Marmite)

  • supplementing your diet with vitamin B12 (by tablet or fortified foods) especially if you follow a vegan diet – and talk to your doctor and dietitian if you’re unsure.
    Note: Cyanocobalamin is the most common form of B12 used in fortified foods and supplements. Methyl-cobalamin is also available in supplement form but appears to be just as effective as cyanocobalamin.

7. Omega-3

Omega-3 helps to reduce inflammation in your body, protecting your heart and brain.

Ways to increase omega-3 in your diet, include

  • grinding flaxseeds and sprinkling on your cereal or adding to bread and muffin mixtures
  • sprinkle chia seeds and/or walnuts on your breakfast cereal, yoghurt, salads, in smoothies, and use when making healthy muffins and desserts
  • using omega-3 fortified soymilks
  • omega-rich eggs
  • omega-3 algae based supplements which are available for vegetarians and vegans with increased omega-3 needs (like pregnant or breastfeeding women).

8. Iodine

Iodine is important for growth, development and the production of thyroid hormones.

Food sources of iodine include:

  • dairy products

  • eggs

  • sea vegetables and nori sheets

  • small amounts of iodised salt.

Vegetarian meal plans 

Sample vegetarian meal plans for all age groups from infancy through to 70 years were developed by a group of Accredited Practising Dietitians with expertise in vegetarian nutrition.They show how vegetarian meals can meet key nutritional needs of children and adults of all ages, and are helpful tools for doctors, dietitians and teachers of nutrition.

These meal plans are a great guide to use as you include more plant-based foods in your meals. For additional help, check with your doctor or dietitian. 

Common myths and misunderstandings

Let’s clear up some common myths and misunderstandings about the adequacy of plant based eating.

Myth 1:  My protein needs can’t be met on a plant based diet

Despite popular thought, plant based diets including vegetarian and vegan diets can easily meet the recommended dietary intakes for protein. Plant and animal proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), and your body can only make 11 of these. The remaining 9 amino acids need to come from your food.

It was once believed that you needed to combine certain wholegrains and plant proteins such as legumes with each meal to make sure you had the best amino acid mix, however, this is no longer the case. Your amino acid requirements can be easily met if you eat a variety of wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products and vegetables each day.

Did you know?
The amino acid score for soy protein, quinoa and amaranth is very similar (if not identical) to red meat, meaning it’s a great source of amino acids for the body, especially if you’re a plant based eater.

Myth 2:  Plant based eaters are more likely to be iron deficient

Not true! There are two sources of iron found in food: haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is only found in animal based foods and is more readily absorbed from food than non-haem iron from plant foods, mostly due to phytate. For this reason it was commonly thought that plant based eaters and vegetarians had a higher risk of iron deficiency.

But plant based eaters are not at higher risk of developing iron deficiency if they have a diet rich in wholegrains, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and green leafy vegetables. Eating vitamin C rich foods with your meals will also help to boost the non haem iron absorption from plant foods, overcoming the phytate.

Non haem iron from plant foods is more readily absorbed as our body has need for more iron, whereas haem iron is absorbed whether we need it or not. Too much haem iron is a concern as it's linked to risk of some chronic diseases, such as diabetes. 

Myth 3:  Plant based eaters are more likely to be zinc deficient

Similar to iron, phytates in wholegrains, wheat bran and legumes can reduce the amount of zinc your body absorbs. However, with normal cooking and processing such as leavening (yeast in breads), soaking, sprouting, or fermenting these foods you reduce the phytate level and increase your zinc absorption.

Many studies show that vegetarians do not have a higher risk of zinc deficiency than non-vegetarians, especially when a plant based diet containing a variety of cooked or sprouted legumes, tofu, tempeh, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and seeds, is consumed.

Myth 4:  Fish is the only source of omega-3

Omega-3 fats are typically found in oily fish and may reduce your risk of heart disease. Is there a way to get omega-3 without eating fish?

There are some valuable plant sources of omega-3 available, including freshly ground flaxseeds, whole chia seeds, and walnuts. These omega-3s convert into an active form in your body.  This works best when you use olive and canola oils/margarines, instead of omega-6 oils such as sunflower and safflower oils/margarines.

To help boost your absorption, add 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds or chia seeds to your cereal every morning.

Myth 5:  Plant foods can provide your body with enough B12

The active form of B12 is found only in animal based products including meat, chicken, fish, dairy and eggs. Mushrooms contain only trace amounts which are not enough to meet your needs, and some plant foods such as tempeh, miso, spirulina, chlorella and unfortified nutritional yeast contain only the inactive form, making them an unreliable source.

Vegans avoid foods that naturally contain vitamin B12 so it's essential to eat foods that are fortified with B12 and/or take a daily B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 supplements don’t contain animal based products.

Did you know?
If you’re over the age of 50, it may be beneficial to supplement your diet with B12. Why? Because your body’s ability to absorb B12 decreases as you age. Vitamin B12 has also been identified as an important nutrient for preventing Alzheimer’s. Make sure you get your B12 levels checked regularly with your GP, especially if you’re vegan or middle-aged or older adult.

For more detailed information on the nutritional adequacy of a vegetarian diet, check out the Medical Journal of Australia publication, “Is a Vegetarian Diet Adequate?—Concepts and Controversies in Plant-based Nutrition”.

References

  1. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Dietetics 2016;116(12):1970-1980.

  2. Stanton RA. A plant-based diet – good for us and for the planet. MJA Open 2012;1 (Suppl 2):5-6.

  3. MJA Open. Is a vegetarian diet adequate? MJA Open 2012; 1 (Suppl 2):5-45; available from: https://www.mja.com.au/open/2012/1/2

  4. Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109(7):1266-1282.

  5. Cart LR. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: vegetarian diets. Can J Diet Prac Res 2003;64(2):62-81.

  6. Reid, MA, KA Marsh, CL Zeuschner, AV Saunders and SK Baines (2013). Meeting the nutrient reference values on a vegetarian diet. MJA Open 2012; 1 (Suppl 2):33-40.

  7. Cancer Council Australia. Position statement – sun exposure and vitamin D – risks and benefits. [Internet] 2016 [cited 2016 August 09]; available from: http://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement -_Risks_and_benefits_of_sun_exposure

  8. Cancer Council Australia. Position statement – sun exposure and vitamin D – risks and benefits. [Internet] 2016 [cited 2016 August 09]; available from: http://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement_-_Risks_and_benefits_of_sun_exposure

  9. Cancer Council Australia. SunSmart App. [Internet] 2016 [cited 2016 August 9]; available from: http://www.cancer.org.au/preventing-cancer/sun-protection/uv-alert/sunsmart-app.html

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