Vegetarians are often considered to be healthy eaters – this can certainly be true for those eating a well-planned diet made from whole foods - non-starchy vegetables, coupled with pulses (beans, lentils), nuts, seeds, eggs, wholegrains and possibly some dairy. This style of eating is high in fibre and promotes a healthy acid/alkali balance. There are many prominent athletes [i] [ii] [iii] who are either vegetarian or vegan, illustrating that a meat-free diet, if approached correctly, can provide the fuel required to propel someone to achieve great athletic feats.
However, many individuals become vegetarians during their teens, often motivated by ethical reasons around animal welfare, and may not be thinking about food in terms of what their body needs from a nutritional perspective. Like much of the population, they may not cook often and due to busy lifestyles, live on convenience foods. These vegetarians are likely to benefit from some tips and ideas to improve their nutrition.
Many scientists agree[iv] [v]that human’s evolved as omnivores – with meat and seafood being a component of the diet. With this in mind, vegetarians and vegans need to pay special attention to how they construct their diet if they want to achieve optimal health.
Genetics are also a consideration - some people can do very well as vegetarians, while others struggle to thrive, even if following a perfect vegetarian diet. This is due largely to inherited differences in metabolism passed on from our distant ancestors but also to other environmental factors.
The good news is, it only takes a little bit of attention and awareness to make modifications in order to optimise the vegetarian diet:
Protein – is the source of amino acids, which are the building blocks for all our cells, tissues, enzymes and immune molecules which help keep our body functioning well. Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair and therefore required to lay the foundation for strength and weight loss goals. It is important for vegetarians to not only include enough protein but also combine different types of vegetable proteins in order to get the full cross-section of amino acids – e.g. grain or nuts with legumes.
Solution – Eat legumes daily; add nuts and seeds to breakfast, salads, snacks; use vegetable protein alternatives such as tofu, tempeh, quorn; include eggs and low fat cheeses; use protein powders to make breakfast smoothies or post-workout drinks.
(Note: beans and legumes are a source of lectins which can be problematic for some people. Some people also find beans harder to digest.)
Carbohydrates – be mindful of not ending up with a plate full of carbs which could lead to blood sugar imbalance, low energy and hold back weight loss goals. At restaurants, the vegetarian option is often a vegetable-based pasta or risotto which are carb-heavy. Beans and legumes, which are a healthy source of vegetable protein, are still predominantly carbohydrate. So a healthy bean chilli or casserole served with rice may still end up being a high-carb meal.
Solution – Aim for half the plate to be made up of non-starchy vegetables or salads; don’t depend upon pasta, rice and bread to fill up; use quinoa and amaranth – these ‘grains’ are higher in protein; eat high-protein vegetables – broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and cauliflower
Fats – Dairy/cheese may be a significant protein source for vegetarians. While dairy is source of protein, it is also high in saturated fat and calories and therefore, best enjoyed in moderation. Dairy is also common trigger for allergy/intolerance so may not suit all people.
Solution - be mindful of cheese intake; use lower fat cheese such as ricotta, cottage or mozzarella; try nutritional yeast flakes for a cheese-like flavour;
Essential Fats - Vegetarians are risk of deficiency in long chain essential fatty acids such as Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in oily fish. EPA is essential for dampening the inflammatory response which helps to keep chronic health conditions at bay. Inflammation is also a major driver for obesity. Omega 3 also plays a role in insulin sensitivity (important for blood sugar regulation).
Solution - include linseeds and walnuts which contain short chain omega 3s; consider taking an omega 3 supplement (vegetarian versions are available); if possible, consider going pescatarian and add fish to the diet 1-2x per week.
Other Nutrients – Iron and B12 are two nutrients which vegetarians need to look out for. Iron from animal sources (haem iron) is much more absorbable than iron found in plant foods. B12 is only found in animal products.
Solution – legumes, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, eggs, molasses, kelp and tofu all contain iron; Combine with vitamin C to help the absorption of iron; many foods are now fortified with B12; Non-animal sources include fermented soya products (miso, tofu, tempeh), algae (spirulina, chlorella) and bee pollen; vegetarians who don’t eat much dairy or egg ad vegans should take a B12 supplement;
Quinoa & amaranth – these grain substitutes are higher in protein than most grains
Broccoli and Kale – higher protein content compared to most vegetables, protective against cancer and nutrient dense.
Tofu and tempeh – protein-dense and a source of iron and calcium. Versatile as a meat replacement in recipes.
[i] Bill Pearl, body builder 4 times Mr Universe
[ii] Martina Navratilova, holds 18 Grand Slam Tennis titles
[iii] Dave Scott, 6 times Iron Man World Champion
[iv] Loren Cordain PhD, author of the Paleo Diet
[v] Dr S Boyd Eaton, New England Journal of Medicine, Palaeolithic Nutrition