Good Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans
By Dietitian Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Getting the right amounts of good nutrition is often a worry for vegetarians and vegans.
But it is possible to have a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes all the nutrients you need, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
There are six main areas of concern:
Protein for Vegetarians and Vegans
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products are unlikely to suffer a shortage of protein as these foods provide good amounts of this nutrient. 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.
Vegans may find it a little more difficult, but a little thought and simple cooking can go a long way.
Good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans include
- and soya and soya products such as tofu and Quorn.
Even starchy foods like bread, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals provide some protein.
It’s important for vegans to mix it up with protein foods, as none of the non-dairy types of food individually will provide all the amino acids your body needs. Except quinoa.
Quinoa contains all the essential amino acids in one neat and versatile package. Used in cooking much as a grain, it is technically a seed.
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.
Even if you a vegetarian who eats dairy foods dairy it’s still 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 intake of calories, fat, saturates and salt end up being high.
You’ll find more ideas in our list of high protein vegetarian foods.
How do Vegetarians Get Enough Iron?
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.
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 vegetarian sources of iron include
- green leafy vegetables eg. broccoli and spinach,
- dried fruit,
- fortified breakfast cereals,
- 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,
- kiwi fruits,
- potatoes 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 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)
Tea and coffee contain naturally-occurring substances called tannins that can hinder the absorption of iron from food, so it’s best to avoid drinking them with iron-rich meals and snacks. Leave half an hour either side of your meal.
How do you Get Enough Calcium in a Veggie Diet?
If you eat dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt regularly, you are likely to be getting enough calcium. However, when you’re trying to lose weight, bear in mind that these foods can be high in fat and calories.
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 for good health.
However, vegan 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, avocado, green leafy veg, dried fruit and oranges. It’s also a good idea to choose calcium-enriched soya, rice or oat drinks.
What About Omega-3 Fats?
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 alternative sources 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.
Vitamin B12 and Selenium
Vitamin B12 intakes may 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 in your diet. Brazil nuts are an especially good source of selenium, so try to eat a couple every day – but remember to count the calories!
Using the food diary and database in WLR will enable you to track and balance your diet. You'll also see how many calories and other nutrients you need and consume. You can try it free for 24 hours.
More on vegetarianism:
Find out more about events, new recipes and veggie starter packs at: http://www.nationalvegetarianweek.org/