Vegetarian and vegan diets have traditionally been largely associated with animal rights or religion. Recently these diets have been gaining even more popularity, thanks to the growing evidence of health benefits and the desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
These diets have many variations, from lacto-ovo vegetarians who exclude meat but still eat dairy and eggs, to vegans who exclude meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs and other animal products such as honey. Whatever the interpretation, plant-based diets can be healthy when done right.
The benefits of a plant-based diet
There are numerous health benefits to following a plant-based diet, such as lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Vegetarian and vegan diets are generally higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat – both beneficial in preventing and managing heart disease. Additionally, a higher fibre diet can assist bowel health by promoting regularity and helping to keep your gut bacteria happy.
People following plant-based diets generally consume significantly more fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, which contain a variety of cancer-protecting compounds. Strict vegetarians and vegans often use soy as a dairy and meat alternative. Soy is high in phytoestrogens which may also be beneficial in reducing cancer risk.
“Vegetarian and vegan diets are generally higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat – both beneficial in preventing and managing heart disease.”
How to stay healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet
Despite all these benefits, people following a vegetarian or vegan diet must work harder to meet their needs for some nutrients including protein, iron, B12, calcium and zinc. Here are a few tips for making sure your plant-based diet is as healthy as possible.
1. Get plenty of protein
Incorporate a variety of meat alternatives in your diet, including legumes (lentils, beans, and chickpeas), nuts, tofu and tempeh. This ensures your body gets the full range of essential amino acids required for protein production in the body. These foods are also high in fibre, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and folate.
2. Focus on iron absorption
Plant-based sources of iron contain non-haem iron, which is harder for our bodies to absorb, so it’s especially important to keep an eye on your iron levels. Good sources include leafy green vegetables, tofu, legumes, eggs, sultanas, dried apricots, fortified breakfast cereal, wholemeal bread, quinoa, and almonds.
To increase iron absorption, try:
- Drinking tea, coffee or wine between meals, rather than at meal times. The tannins in these drinks can prevent iron from being absorbed.
- Eating foods that contain vitamin C, as they help your body to absorb more iron.
- Cooking vegetables to increase the amount of available non-haem iron.
- Avoiding large amounts of dairy or dairy alternatives at main meals. High levels of calcium and phosphorus can reduce the absorption of iron from plant foods.
3. Check your vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 in only present in animal foods. People on a vegan diet will eventually require supplementation. Get regular check-ups with your doctor to ensure levels of iron and vitamin B12 are monitored and supplemented if required.
4. Choose fortified dairy alternatives
Ensure dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, oat and rice milk are calcium fortified as these foods are not naturally calcium rich. Fortified products usually
have around 300 mg of calcium per serve. Nuts, seeds, and leafy greens are also good sources of calcium.
5. Remember your good fats
Seafood is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids which are beneficial for heart health, joints and brain. Plant-based sources include linseed/flaxseed, chia seeds, nuts, olive oil.
6. Take extra care when pregnant or with special health needs
Pregnant women, infants, children, and people requiring higher calorie and protein intakes due to illness can be at higher risk of nutrient deficiencies on a vegetarian or vegan diet. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can help ensure all nutrient needs are met.