If you're considering becoming a vegetarian or would like to include more vegetarian meals in your diet, it's important to make sure you cover all the basic nutrition that your body needs. This blog provides some tips and advice to ensure that your vegetarian diet provides the nutrition your body needs to stay healthy.
A balanced diet is vital for good health. As part of your vegetarian diet, try to make sure you eat a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Including these three macronutrients daily can improve your health.
Why we need to include macronutrients
These are a quick and easy source of fuel for our body to make energy. Carbohydrates make up quite a large proportion of a vegetarian diet, so generally vegetarians don't struggle to include this group of food.
This is important for muscle function and immunity. It can be a little more challenging to include enough protein in vegetarian diets. Where possible, dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) and eggs should be included in vegetarian diets as they are complete proteins. If you are unable to eat dairy or eggs, vegetarian complete protein sources include:
- mycoprotein e.g. Quorn, textured vegetable protein, and tempeh.
Protein is made up of 22 amino acids – 8 of which are called essential because our bodies cannot make them. All 8 are found in animal products, but for vegetarians 2 of the essential amino acids are harder to find in food (lysine and methionine). Wheat and rice are low in lysine, and beans and peas are low in methionine. Adding cereals and legumes together to make complementary proteins is beneficial e.g. hummus and bread or beans and rice. We need approximately 45g (female) / 55g (male) protein per day.
This is crucial to help cells function. Some fats are better than others. Saturated fats should be limited to 24g per day (women), and 31g per day (men). Monosaturated fats should be limited to 29g per day (women), and 36g per day (men). Where possible try to increase omega-3 fats and reducing saturated and omega-6 fats. Switching sunflower oil to rapeseed oil is a good tip. A vegetarian source of omega-3 is algal oil (which comes from algae) instead of fish oil.
The UK Government suggest a vegetarian diet should include:
- 5+ portions of fruit / vegetables per day. Remembering 1 portion is the size of a clenched fist, and preferably no more than 2 fruit per day
- Whole grains and dairy / dairy alternatives (soya, oat, rice milks which are fortified)
- Varied protein sources including; lentils, beans, peas, eggs, Quorn, soya products or textured vegetable protein
- Good fats should also be included and are found in olive, rapeseed, sunflower and corn oil
The ones to watch out for
Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which transport oxygen to give us energy. Add a source of vitamin C to the same meal (red pepper, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit). Also, avoid tea, coffee, and grains in the same meal as these reduce the absorption of iron. If you are taking an iron supplement the best time to take it is with a source of vitamin C and away from other foods e.g. at bedtime. Some of the best vegetarian iron sources include:
- Dried fruit
- Dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, spring greens)
- Wholemeal bread
- Cereals fortified with iron
B12 is only naturally found in animal products and is essential for a healthy nervous system and red blood cell formation. When dietary sources are low it can leave you feeling low in energy / anaemic. B12 can be taken as a supplement (1.5mcg per day), by injection from your GP, or found in the following:
- Fortified foods e.g. marmite, breakfast cereals, soya products
- Fermented products (tempeh, miso, spirulina) contain similar substances to B12 but don't work in the body in the same way so not as reliable a source of B12
This is one of nature's best anti-inflammatories, helping with joint health, lowering cholesterol, and hair, skin, and nail growth among many other areas. Algal (algae) oil is considered one of the best sources of vegetarian omega-3 and can be purchased at health food stores. Dietary vegetarian sources that are not quite as good, but should still be included as part of a varied and balanced diet include:
- Rapeseed oil
- Eggs enriched with omega 3
If you would like to include more vegetarian meals in your diet we've got some great vegetarian recipes you can make at home.
Written by: The Natural Alternative Health & Wellbeing Ltd
The Natural Alternative Health & Wellbeing Ltd was founded in 2006 by Anjanette Fraser whose previous career was in Corporate Finance at PricewaterhouseCoopers, London. With a previous career in finance and studying a MSc in Nutritional Medicine, Anjanette translates the latest scientific research into an easier to understand format to improve employee health, and making healthcare more accessible by bringing Nutrition health professionals into the workplace.