Going vegetarian or vegan isn’t without its challenges. Done well, it can be very healthy. But if you don’t have the time or desire for careful meal planning, then being a vegetarian may not be for you. Challenges you may encounter include:
- Balancing out main meals so that they are healthy, nutritious and filling. Main meals often contain animal products, which provide protein and kilojoules, if these are taken out, and not replaced with comparable alternatives; you may end up feeling hungry and tired.
- Including nutritious animal product alternatives. Animal products provide many essential nutrients e.g. protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. If these nutrients aren’t obtained from alternate sources, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies and poor health.
- Adapting your new way of eating with the family. If everyone else in the family eats meat, meal times can be challenging, especially for the person cooking. Be prepared; have vegetarian alternatives and recipes available, otherwise you may just end up with a bowl of salad…
- No meal option other than a ‘garden salad’ when eating out. This has improved over the years with a greater number of venues catering for vegetarians but it’s a good idea to have a list of places that do cater or to checkout a venue’s menu beforehand.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies
If you are considering going vegetarian, you should take the time to read up on how to achieve a healthy well balanced diet. Some of the nutrients that vegetarians may become deficient in include protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine and omega 3 fatty acids. Below some of these are discussed along with food sources.
Protein is important for muscle repair and synthesis. Protein can be found in eggs, dairy, tofu, tempeh, legumes e.g. soy beans, chickpeas and kidney beans, nuts and seeds.
Iron is a mineral involved in oxygen transport, enzyme reactions and immune system function. Iron is found in legumes e.g. soybeans and lentils, tofu, fortified soy products or breakfast cereals, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, blackstrap molasses, spinach, silverbeet, dried apricots and raisins. Plant based iron sources (non-haem) aren’t as well absorbed as animal based sources (haem). Including sources of vitamin C can aid absorption e.g. lemon juice, fresh tomatoes, capsicums or orange.
Zinc is a mineral involved in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism including enzyme reactions, immune system function, protein and DNA synthesis. Food sources include tofu, tempeh, legumes e.g. chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, nuts e.g. almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, peanuts, peanut butter and cashews, seeds e.g. sunflower seeds and chia seeds, and oats.
Calcium is an essential mineral for strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D is needed for proper absorption of calcium. Food sources of calcium include dairy foods, fortified non-dairy milks and yoghurts, tofu, sesame and chia seeds, almonds, figs, oranges, spinach, silverbeet, bok choy and kale.
Vitamin B12 is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis. Food sources include eggs, dairy, fortified soy products and breakfast cereals. It can be difficult for strict vegans to meet their vitamin B12 requirements and a supplement may be necessary.
A well balanced vegetarian diet includes a variety of different foods to help meet nutrient needs, careful planning and adventurous taste buds can not only help you meet your nutrient needs but also keep meal times interesting. The next article will look at preparing healthy vegetarian meals.
*To learn about the various types of vegetarian or vegan diets read my article: Time to Go Vegetarian or Vegan?
*Want to try some plant-based recipes? Visit the recipes section of this website.