How to become a healthy vegetarian
I have been inspired to write this post as it is currently national Vegetarian Week in the UK. Organised by the Vegetarian Society, it is devised to encourage people to cut out animal products for one week and to show that being vegetarian does not have to be boring. Well I can certainly vouch for that!
Some people are choosing to eat less meat due to their views on the climate and others are doing it for health reasons. But is going vegetarian as healthy as it is considered to be?
What is the difference between vegetarians and Vegans?
Some people may confuse the two concepts so for those that may be unsure this is the key difference between the two: Vegetarians consume the products from animals (eggs, dairy, honey) but not the animal themselves. They would also often wear leather shoes or a wool jumper.
Vegans do not consume any products or bi-products from animals so the diet is completely plant based and they would never wear leather or wool products.
With my clinical experience having met hundreds of clients, there is one thing I can guarantee – most vegetarians I have met do not have a truly healthy diet. There are some, who having chosen to avoid animal foods, do not spend the time thinking about how to eat healthily; probably because they didn’t before turning vegetarian. Then there are those doing their best to be healthy but they don’t have the information and resources to ensure their food choices are appropriate.
The first step to consider is: where shall I obtain my protein from?
Protein- an essential macro-nutrient. It is responsible for growth and repair of cells and tissues. It’s an essential component of bones, skin, tendons and ligaments (connective tissue). It’s used to make enzymes in the body that run our processes; one set of these are the digestive enzymes that help us digest our food well. It’s required for certain hormone production. It is turned into neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain that keeps us calm.
It’s an impressive list! The average person requires 50-70g protein a day. When animal products are removed from the diet you have to work that bit harder to obtain your protein.
The good news is that a vegetarian can still eat eggs and dairy (like goats, sheep and cow’s milk products) which provide good sources of protein. Other sources are pulses, lentils, soya (like tofu or fermented ones like miso, natto and tempeh), nuts and seeds (and their butters). Another good way to ensure your daily protein intake is to add plant based protein powders and add to smoothies at breakfast or as a snack. And finally there are the more processed sources like quorn. I advise some of my clients to eat quorn as part of a varied diet just to ensure sufficient protein without the hassle.
What about Fats?
Another essential macro-nutrient that can be overlooked when people think about eating healthily. Fats are required for the brain (60%+ fat), every cell membrane and around every nerve fibre helping to fire electrical signals around the body. Steroid hormones are made from fats. Fats can be a great energy source and help to keep blood sugar levels stable. Fats do not “make us fat” and in fact certain healthy fats actually help to burn fat!
Nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and avocados are an easy way for vegetarians to consume good fats.
BUT, as oily fish is not part of the diet, it will swing the balance towards a heavy Omega 6 intake with very little Omega 3. This creates a pro-inflammatory state in the body and low level inflammation is becoming increasingly common.
Top correct this flaxseeds can help a little but the conversion to the more utilised essential fats: EPA and DHA (rich in oily fish) is very poor. The only way to overcome this is to supplement an algae based EPA/DHA supplements and thgere are several on the market now to cater for this growing market.
What about Carbohydrates?
These are easily consumed in a vegetarian diet but watch your intake! I find that the balance between proteins and starchy carbohydrates is poor. This creates a blood sugar imbalance in the body leading to tiredness, poor concentration, weight gain, poor sleep and more!
It isn’t necessary to eat a lot of starchy pasta, bread, rice or potatoes. Increase vegetable intake- you are vegetarian after all!
Look for pastas made from lentils and chickpeas (proteins!); use quinoa (also a good protein source).
When putting meals together follow my “Healthy Plate” principles of one third protein with a little fat; almost half non starchy vegetables and 20% starchy carbohydrates.
Am I missing any nutrients?
I’m afraid to say that yes you will be. As I’ve mentioned above, EPA/DHA will be lacking in your diet even if you consume flaxseeds (due to the very poor conversion), hence the need to take an algae based supplement.
B12 may be lacking as it is predominantly found in animal foods so this is another supplement I would take too. It can take five years to show up a B12 deficiency. It’s required to make healthy red blood cells (that transport oxygen around the body), helps energy production, helps to keep bones strong and helps mood and brain health.
Finally iron uptake may be restricted as most iron is non-haem which is harder for the body to absorb. Do consume vitamin C foods like peppers, kiwi fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, berries and citrus fruits with your meals. Phytates can hinder mineral uptake so watch your consumption of pulses, nuts, seeds and grains. I know- these are common vegetarian foods! The best way to reduce the phytic acid content is to soak these foods and rinse before cooking and eating. And vary your protein sources so that these foods are not eaten at every meal.
If you follow these steps, spend some time planning your meals and shopping accordingly, you can become a healthy vegetarian. Just a final word of caution: some people just do not thive well on a plant based diet and do require denser animal based proteins. If you’ve tried a vegetarian diet and despite your best intentions you don’t feel great (low energy, low mood) it just may not be the right diet for you.
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