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Vegetarian

There are various types of vegetarian diets.

Pescatarians do not eat 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.

Vegans exclude all animal foods, dairy products and eggs, with some also excluding all other animal products including honey, gelatine, silk, wool and leather.

Plant-based: there is no official definition of a plant-based diet but it generally refers to a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods. Someone eating a plant-based diet may include some animal products.

There are many reasons someone may choose to eat this way

  • animal welfare
  • environmental reasons (a vegan diet uses much less land, water and energy than one that contains meat and dairy)
  • health
  • religion
  • personal preference

Both, globally and in NZ the popularity of vegetarianism and veganism is growing.

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 to the finding that vegetarians typically have healthier lifestyle habits e.g. they tend to smoke less and exercise more, rather than their avoidance of animal products.

Good nutrition for vegetarians

According to most health and dietetic organisations, a well-planned vegetarian (and vegan) diet can be healthy at any life stage.

In saying that, meat and/or animal products provide us with protein, ironzinccalciumvitamin B12 and vitamin D in New Zealand, so simply excluding these from your diet can put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies. You need to make sure you are eating enough plant-based foods that contain these nutrients on a daily basis to avoid missing out.

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 particularly important for people following vegan diets where dairy and eggs are excluded in addition to meat. In saying that, it’s very easy to meet the recommended levels for protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Choosing a range of protein-rich foods such as eggs and milk, yoghurt (if you eat them), 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 with some soy milk and peanut butter, 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.

Athletes and older people need more protein than the general public and may need to pay closer attention to getting enough protein spread throughout the day.

Sources of important vitamins and minerals

Calcium

As you may know, dairy is an excellent source of calcium, however, if you avoid dairy make sure to include fortified plant-based dairy alternatives (e.g. fortified soy or almond milk), green leafy vegetables e.g. boy choy and kale, calcium-set tofu, red kidney beans.

Iron

The iron provided by plant foods, called non-haem iron, is not as well absorbed by the body. You can improve its absorption by including vitamin C-rich foods with every meal. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • 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 chickpea or lentil curry

Avoid drinking tea with meals as this reduces your body’s ability to absorb iron. Enjoy tea between meals rather than with them.

Zinc

Zinc is important for growth and development and proper immune function.

Good plant sources of zinc include beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and some fortified breakfast cereals.

Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D (which we get from the sun) work together to support bone health. 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, however, if you avoid or limit these foods you might want to discuss taking a supplement with your doctor.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

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 fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soy milk, B12 fortified nutritional yeast and some yeast extract spreads, e.g. Marmite. For those following vegan diets, these fortified foods and/or supplements are necessary to meet requirements.

Overall

A carefully planned and varied vegetarian diet can support healthy living at every age and life stage. You can get all essential nutrients from plant foods but vegans need to ensure a reliable source of vitamin B12. It pays to be extra vigilant during

  • childhood and adolescence
  • pregnancy
  • older age

as requirements for certain nutrients increase at these life stages and for other reasons, e.g., children may struggle to eat enough food to meet their growing needs on a vegetarian diet, as plant 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.

Last modified: January 26, 2022