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There are various types of vegetarian diets. Semi-vegetarians do not eat red meat, but will eat fish and other animal products such as poultry, eggs and dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians do not eat meat, fish or chicken, but will eat milk and milk products, while the lacto-ovo vegetarian will also eat eggs. Those following a vegan diet exclude all animal foods, dairy products and eggs, with some also excluding all other animal products including honey, gelatine, silk, wool and leather.
Vegetarianism in New Zealand
In 2016 a research poll carried out among people aged 14 or older in New Zealand found 10.3 per cent of New Zealanders overall described themselves as mostly or always vegetarian. In the North Island the figure was 11.1 per cent, while in the South Island it was 7.8 per cent. The results indicated a generational divide with vegetarianism more common among those aged under 34. In the 14-24 age group, 13.3 per cent were always or mostly vegetarian, in the 25-34 group it was 13.8 per cent. For those aged 35-49 it was 8.1 per cent, and for those 50-plus it was 8.7 per cent.
Vegetarian versus omnivorous diets
Some research has shown vegetarians live longer and suffer less from diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. There is also a tendency for vegetarians to have lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, a lower body mass index (BMI) and less likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. However, these benefits may be due in part to variations in lifestyle such as smoking habits, alcohol consumption, activity and leisure patterns, rather than the absence of animal products.
Good nutrition for vegetarians
Meat and/or animal products provide us with protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D in New Zealand, so simply excluding these from your diet can lead to poor nutrition. If you exclude a large number of foods from your diet, careful planning is needed to ensure you receive all the essential nutrients you need, in the right amounts.
Any food or a food group removed from the diet needs to be replaced with a suitable alternative. For example, if you don’t eat meat, you should replace it with other foods rich in protein, iron and zinc, such as tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, oats, rye, barley, lentils, beans and peas (baked beans, chilli beans, chickpeas and soy beans). These foods do not contain as much iron and zinc as meat, or it is a type not so easily used by the body. Larger amounts of these meat alternatives are therefore needed if meat is not eaten.
Similarly, if you are not eating dairy products, calcium must also be replaced in addition to protein. As well as the foods listed above, choose calcium-fortified soy milk, canned sardines and tuna, broccoli, sesame seeds and almonds. For further information about serving sizes of these foods, visit our calcium, iron and zinc webpages.
How to get enough protein
Plant sources of protein, with the exception of soy protein and quinoa, do not contain all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein. This is very important for people following vegan diets where dairy and eggs are excluded in addition to meat.
Choosing a range of protein-rich foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, soy milk, tofu, oats, rye, barley, wheat, nuts and seeds, lentils, beans and peas will help ensure you obtain the full range of amino acids from your food. For example, having porridge for breakfast, baked beans on toast for lunch, hummus on wheat crackers for afternoon tea and a lentil soup with wholegrain bread for dinner, will provide you with all the necessary amino acids.
Vegetarian mince and sausages are another good source of protein and can be found in either the freezer or chilled section of most supermarkets.
Sources of important vitamins and minerals
The iron provided by plant foods, called non-haem iron, is not well used by the body. You can improve its use by including vitamin C-rich foods and drinks with every meal. Here are a few ideas to try:
a glass of fruit juice with your breakfast
chopped-up fresh or canned fruit on breakfast cereal. Kiwifruit, strawberries and oranges are particularly high in vitamin C
sliced apple in a cheese toastie
grilled capsicum or tomato with baked beans on wholegrain toast
extra vegetables in a chick pea or lentil curry.
Avoid drinking tea with meals as this prevents your body using the iron. Enjoy tea between meals rather than with them.
Most New Zealanders make enough vitamin D when skin is exposed to the sun. For people with reduced exposure, such as the elderly or housebound, and those with darker skin, eating foods rich in Vitamin D is an important part of the diet. Vegetarian sources include eggs and dairy products.
The best sources of vitamin B12 are meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese. Plant sources are limited to those fortified with vitamin B12, such as breakfast cereals, fortified soy milk and some yeast extract spreads, e.g. Marmite.
For those following vegan diets, or vegetarian diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding, fortified foods or supplements may be necessary to meet specific nutrient requirements, such as vitamin B12 and iron. Children may also struggle to eat enough food to meet their growing needs, as vegetarian foods can be high in fibre, and therefore bulky and filling. Talk to your doctor, or consult a registered dietitian/nutritionist, if you are concerned about meeting your nutrition requirements, or if you are losing weight, feeling tired or lethargic.