Vegetarian or plant based diets have been around since the beginning of human kind. This information is designed to provide information on health benefits, risks and special considerations for those following, or embarking upon a vegetarian diet. It does not replace the advice and individual guidance of your healthcare practitioner.
There are several categories of Vegetarians and Vegans
Semi-vegetarian eats dairy foods, eggs, chicken, and fish, but no other animal flesh
Pesco-vegetarian eats dairy foods, eggs, and fish, but no other animal flesh
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats dairy foods and eggs, but no animal flesh
Lacto-vegetarian eats dairy foods, but no animal flesh or eggs
Ovo-vegetarian eats eggs, but no dairy foods or animal flesh
Vegan eats no eggs, dairy, fish or meat
Health benefits of a vegetarian-based diet
Lower in saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein
Higher in carbohydrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.
Lower body mass indices and lesser risk for obesity.
Lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease and lower risk for coronary artery disease.
Lower incidences of high blood cholesterol levels, hypertension, type II diabetes, constipation, gallstones, prostate and colon cancer.
Potential risks of a vegetarian diet
Vegetarian, and in particular vegan diets, increase the risk of deficiencies of vitamin B12 which is found exclusively in animal foods, in addition to vitamin B2, vitamin A, vitamin D, n-3 fatty acids and several minerals, such as copper, calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine.
The need for vitamin B12 increases during pregnancy, breast-feeding, and periods of growth. A chronic deficiency can lead to irreversible nerve deterioration.
A lack of vitamin D may causes rickets in children, while inadequate calcium can contribute to the risk of osteoporosis in later years.
Iron and zinc are the most common mineral deficiencies occurring on vegetarian diets.
Vegetarians are susceptible to iron deficiency anaemia because of a lack of readily absorbed iron from meat, but also from eating foods with constituents that inhibit iron absorption such as bran, soy protein and cereal fibre.6
Vegans must avoid inadequate calorie intake and chronic deficiencies. They need to consider their restrictive diet during pregnancy or other conditions of increased nutritional demand. They should supplement their diet daily with at least a multivitamin/mineral and vitamin B12.
Protein deficiency is a common problem amongst vegetarian and vegans, which in children can impair growth and in adults can cause loss of hair, muscle mass, immune function and energy.
The elderly should be especially cautious with restricted diets as nutritional deficiencies increase with age (eg. anaemia), as does the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Tips for a Healthy Vegetarian Diet
Minimise intake of nutritionally deficient foods such as sugar, processed, refined and fast foods
Choose whole or unrefined grain products instead of refined products (white breads, white flour products, white pasta, white rice (except basmati))
Choose a wide variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Eat with the seasons to receive a variety of foods high in nutrients.
Include a combination of available protein sources daily to attain adequate levels of amino acids.
Include good sources of vitamin C to improve iron absorption
For vegans and ovo-vegetarians, include fortified food sources of vitamin B12 such as fortified soymilks or cereals, or include a daily supplement.
Include a vitamin D supplement if sunlight exposure is low and a calcium supplement if diet is inadequate or needs are increased.
Have regular checks for iron levels especially if you are a teenager, menstruating female, pregnant or elderly.
Combining plant protein sources
Vegans, and especially children, must be sure to consume adequate nutrients and especially protein. It is the animal foods, including eggs and dairy that provide all eight of the essential amino acids and constitute a “complete” protein. Plant foods are “incomplete” proteins and contain fewer amino acids than animal foods. Plant-based diets can provide adequate amounts of amino acids but only when a varied diet is eaten on a daily basis. The mixture of proteins from grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetables provide a complement of amino acids so that deficits in one food are made up by another. Not all types of plant foods need to be eaten at the same meal, since the amino acids are combined in the body’s protein pool. To gain the greatest use of all the amino acids, it’s best to consume complementary proteins within three to four hours. The following combinations are strongly advised:
Grains with legumes – Basmati rice with Lentil Dahl
Grains with eggs or dairy – Wholemeal toast with poached egg
Legumes with nuts and seeds – Stir fry tofu with sesame seeds and cashews
Legumes with eggs or dairy – Chickpea curry with yoghurt
Nuts and seeds with grains – Almond spread on spelt bread
Nuts and seeds with eggs or dairy – Roasted seed/nut mix sprinkled onto fruit & yoghurt
Vegetarian and vegan diets can meet the current recommendations for all of the above-mentioned nutrients, but in order to be healthy they require very careful planning and may require supplementation. As with any diet, it’s important for the vegetarian diet to include many different foods, since no one food contains all the nutrients required for good health. The wider the variety, the greater the chance of getting the nutrients you need.