Vegetarian Calorie Control
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Q: Surely for a vegetarian calorie intake is lower because the diet contains more vegetables?
A: Most vegetables are low in fat and calories, providing they don’t have oil, butter, mayo or oily salad dressings added to them. And eating more veg can certainly help to fill you up for fewer calories, thanks to them containing plenty of fibre.
But many people who follow a vegetarian diet replace the meat and fish in their diets with large amounts of high-calorie foods such as cheese, nuts, seeds and ready-made vegetarian meals that contain high-cal ingredients, including pastry and rich sauces.
This means fat and calorie intakes can end up being even higher than a diet that includes lean red meat and fish.
Meanwhile, booze and many fatty and sugary foods such as biscuits, crisps, chocolate, puddings, cakes, confectionery, chips and soft drinks are still often included as part of vegetarian diet – and these are usually high in calories.
So whilst you might eat more low-calorie vegetables as part of a vegetarian diet, you still need to make sure that you stick to your daily calorie allowance overall – and this will mean making sure you don’t eat too many fatty and sugary foods or calorie-laden veggie dishes.
Don't assume vegetarian calorie consumption is automatically going to be lower than a meat based diet. Vegetarian fat intake should also be watched.
As a guideline, always check the packaging of ready-made vegetarian dishes or look up the calories in wlr to see the calorie and fat content in a typical serving – and remember to include it in your daily calorie allowance.
A vegetarian calorie controlled diet is perfectly straightforward with a little planning!
Q: So what foods do I typically need to watch out for?
A: Some foods typically included as part of a vegetarian diet may be high in calories. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them – just remember to count the calories:
- Nuts, seeds and dishes made with these eg nut roast, nutty cereals, cereal bars, flapjacks and biscuits
- Cheese and dishes that include cheese eg cheese sandwiches, cheese on toast
- Vegetarian ready meals, especially those that include cheese eg veggie lasagne, veggie moussaka, macaroni cheese, vegetable bake
- Pastry products eg vegetarian sausage rolls, cheese and onion pasties, vegetable pies, spring rolls, vegetable samosas
- Vegetable pizzas, quiches and flans
- Hummus and soured cream or mayo-based dips
- Cream and creamy sauces and soups
- Takeaways such as vegetable curry, vegetable biryiani, pilau rice, egg fried rice, pancake rolls
- Meat-free sausages, burgers and patés.
Q: Wouldn’t it just be better to avoid nuts and seeds altogether because they are so high in calories and fat?
A: There’s no need to ban any one food from a diet when you’re trying to lose weight, and that includes nuts and seeds.
Yes, they are quite high in calories, but they are also a rich source of protein and fibre and are packed with important vitamins and minerals that are often found in meat and fish.
In particular, most nuts and seeds are rich in iron, zinc and selenium – all nutrients that are found in good amounts in meat and fish.
They are also a good source of calcium, making them particularly important for people who follow a vegan diet that avoids dairy products, which tend to be the main sources of this nutrient in most people’s diets.
And whilst nuts and seeds are high in fat, most of this fat is heart-healthy unsaturated fat.
If you want to eat these foods, the key is to monitor the amount you eat and remember to include the calories as part of your daily allowance.
Q: Can cheese be included in a low calorie vegetarian diet?
A: Cheese is an important source of many different nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, D and some B group vitamins and so can make an important contribution to most people’s diets.
However, it’s not unusual for vegetarian diets to include large amounts of cheese and this can make it harder to lose weight, because it’s generally high in calories and fat. The key is to always count the calories.
Look for reduced-fat varieties of cheese, too – they usually contain a similar amount of vitamins and minerals, but without as many calories or as much fat.
Q: I always look for foods that are labelled as being ‘suitable for vegetarians’. Will this mean my diet is healthy?
A: Not automatically!
There’s no legal definition for the term ‘vegetarian’ for food labelling purposes.
However, the Food Standards Agency suggests that “the term ‘vegetarian’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from or with the aid of products derived from animals that have died, have been slaughtered, or animals that die as a result of being eaten”.
This has absolutely no bearing on the nutritional content of a food product though.
Even if a product is labelled as being ‘suitable for vegetarians’, you should still check out the calorie and fat content to make sure that it will fit into your daily allowance for a low calorie vegetarian diet.
Q: How can I make sure I get enough protein if I don’t eat meat?
A: Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians who eat dairy products are unlikely to suffer a shortage of protein as other foods provide good amounts of this nutrient.
Good sources of protein for vegetarians include beans, chickpeas, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, soya and soya products such as tofu and Quorn.
For example, just 200ml of semi-skimmed milk, a 150g pot of low-fat yogurt and 1 boiled egg provide almost half the protein needed by women each day.
Meanwhile, even starchy foods like bread, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals provide some protein.
In particular, if you follow a low calorie vegetarian diet, it’s important to eat a mixture of different protein-rich foods together to make sure you get all the essential amino acids you need to stay healthy.
These essential amino acids (protein building blocks) can’t be made by the body and so must be provided by the diet. Milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs provide all the essential amino acids, whereas non-animal sources of protein lack in one or more of them.
However, combining different protein-rich foods together means you’ll get all the essential amino acids you need, for example:
- baked beans on toast
- vegetable and bean chilli with rice
- rice and bean salad
- peanut butter on toast
- lentil soup with a bread roll
- hummus and pitta bread
If you follow a vegan diet that omits dairy products and eggs, it’s even more important to make sure you eat different combinations of protein-rich foods together.
It’s also a good idea to eat a variety of different protein-rich foods rather than relying on just one type. For example, only eating cheese as your main source of protein may mean that your intakes of calories, fat, saturates and salt end up being high.
Q: How do I ensure I get enough iron?
A: Red meat is an important source of iron, which is needed for healthy blood and to prevent a condition called anaemia, the symptoms of which include extreme tiredness, breathlessness on exertion, weakness and a lack of concentration. The BNF report confirms that almost a fifth of the iron in our diets in the UK comes from meat and meat products.
In particular, meat is an especially important source of iron for young women, as currently 40 percent of females aged 19 to 34 years in the UK have iron intakes below the minimum amount needed to stay healthy.
If you don’t eat meat, it’s important to include plenty of other iron-rich foods in your diet. Good sources include:
- green leafy vegetables eg. broccoli and spinach
- dried fruit
- fortified breakfast cereals
- nuts and peanut butter
It’s also worth remembering that the iron in meat and fish (haem iron) is in a form that’s better absorbed and used by the body than the iron found in eggs and plant foods (non-haem iron) such as cereals and vegetables.
Fortunately, vitamin C helps the body make the best use of the iron in eggs, cereals and vegetables, so eat iron-rich foods and vitamin C-rich foods together.
Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits and their juices, berries, kiwi fruits, peppers, tomatoes and green leafy veg such as sprouts, spinach, broccoli, watercress and rocket.
The following are examples of good meal combinations for enhancing iron absorption:
- A bowl of fortified breakfast cereal (iron) with a glass of unsweetened orange juice (vitamin C)
- Scrambled eggs (iron) with tomatoes (vitamin C) on toast
- Omelette (iron) with salad (vitamin C)
- Lentil curry (iron) followed by a bowl of fruit salad (vitamin C)
- Hummus (iron) with pepper sticks (vitamin C)
- Baked beans on toast (iron) followed by an orange (vitamin C)
Q: I’ve read that I shouldn’t drink tea with meals if I’m a vegetarian. Is this true?
A: Tea contains naturally-occurring substances called tannins that can hinder the absorption of iron from food, so it’s best to avoid drinking tea with iron-rich meals and snacks.
Q: How do I ensure I get enough calcium?
A: If dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are eaten regularly, most vegetarian diets are likely to include enough calcium.
In general, three servings of dairy products a day such as 200ml of semi-skimmed milk, 1 pot of low-fat yogurt and a small matchbox-sized piece of cheese will provide all the calcium needed by women for good health.
However, low calorie vegetarian diets that omit dairy products may be low in this nutrient. It’s therefore important to include plenty of other foods that contain calcium.
Good sources include nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, green leafy veg, dried fruit and oranges. It’s also a good idea to choose calcium-enriched soya, rice or oat drinks.
Q: I don’t eat fish. How can I get enough omega-3 fats?
A: Oil-rich fish (such as salmon, mackerel, trout and fresh tuna) is a good source of omega-3 fats – a type of polyunsaturated fat that’s particularly important for a healthy heart.
Vegetarian diets need to consider an alternative source of omega 3 fats.
Other ingredients, including flaxseed, rapeseed oil, walnuts and tofu, also contain omega-3 fats, so try adding these in your diet.
Also, look out for foods that are fortified with omega-3 fats – for example, some eggs and margarines now have omega-3 added to them.
You might also want to consider taking a supplement of this essential fat. For more information about omega-3 fats and vegetarian diets visit the Vegetarian Society website www.vegsoc.org/info/omega3.html
Q: Are there any other nutrients I need to pay attention to?
A: The BNF report highlights that meat and meat products contain many other nutrients that are important for good health, including zinc and vitamin D.
Vitamin B12 intakes may also be low in people who follow a vegan diet and avoid all animal products including eggs and dairy products.
This vitamin is needed to make red blood cells and to keep the nervous system healthy.
It’s only found naturally in animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese, although some foods such as breakfast cereals, bread and yeast extracts have this vitamin added to them.
As a result, vegans should eat plenty of foods that have B12 added to them and may also need to take a supplement.
It’s also essential to make sure you get enough selenium. This mineral is an important antioxidant and helps the immune system to function properly.
If you don’t eat meat or fish, both of which are good sources of this nutrient, it’s important to include nuts. Brazil nuts are an especially good source of selenium, so try to eat a couple every day – but remember to count the calories.
You can use the WLR food diary and database to monitor and balance your vegetarian diet. You'll also see how many calories and other nutrients you need and consume. Start a free trial here.
The Vegetarian Society http://www.vegsoc.org
Find out more about events, new recipes and veggie starter packs at: http://www.nationalvegetarianweek.org/