A healthy vegetarian diet: is it possible?

A healthy vegetarian diet: is it possible?

Being a vegetarian is becoming more popular. We have year-round access to fresh vegetables and fruits, a vegetarian menu in many restaurants and even vegetarian festivals.

There are many reasons why people become vegetarians, from religious to ethical. Some people even swear that being a vegetarian is the healthiest way to lose weight.

Whatever your reasons for being a vegetarian are, here are a few tips on how to stay healthy and which mistakes to avoid.

What does it mean to be a vegetarian?

We all know that vegetarians do not eat meat and poultry. But people with different food restrictions might also call themselves vegetarians:

  • Semi-vegetarians eat animal products, but selectively. They avoid red meat but eat fish and poultry.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians allow themselves to eat eggs and dairy products.
  • Ovo vegetarians eat no meat, poultry, fish and dairy products, but do eat eggs.
  • Lacto vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish and eggs, but do eat dairy products.
  • Vegans do not eat products derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products and even gelatin and honey.

Disclaimer: if you are thinking about going a vegetarian or you are already a vegetarian and worried about essential substances that your body loses, talk to your healthcare provider. They will help you consider how to get all your necessary vitamins and substances.

What exactly does your body need?

Planning a diet is a difficult process and it is easy to miss something. For vegetarians, it is important to get enough vitamin B12 (which can be found naturally only in foods from animal sources) and iron (basically, non-vegetarians get it from meat and by-products). Vegans also need to get enough calcium (non-vegans find it in dairy foods). Women should keep iron levels under control in order to avoid a deficiency.

Iron

Iron is involved in oxygen transport, immune responses and cellular energy production. The extremely important role of iron in the human body is because iron is part of red blood cells and more than a hundred enzymes.

Liver and meat are the best sources of iron (about 8 mg per steak), but there are another good iron sources. Ovo vegetarians are at lower risk of deficiency among vegetarians, because they get iron from eggs (0,6 mg per one hard-boiled egg). To avoid an iron deficiency, other vegetarians should eat nuts, legumes (beans, lentils or peas), tofu, dried fruits (like raisins), dark-green vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach), whole grains (such as brown rice and brown bread) and cereals fortified with iron.

Adults need at least 8 mg of iron a day for men and 18 mg for women.

As long as you include the foods listed above in your nutrition, you should be getting enough iron. For better absorption of it, you can add vitamin C to your nutrition (at least 90 mg a day for men and 75 mg for women).

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for normal growth and appetite improvement. It strengthens the immune system, prevents the appearance of anemia, plays an important role in the regulation of the function of the hematopoietic organs, maintains the nervous system in a healthy state, improves concentration, memory and balance, and reduces irritability.

Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources. If you eat dairy products and eggs, you probably get enough. If you are a vegan, you can get vitamin B12 from fortified soy products, yeast extract (such as Marmite) and fortified breakfast cereals. Check the product composition for the content and amount of vitamin B12 in them. Checking vitamin B12 level and talking with a doctor about taking supplements is the best option for maintaining health.

Adults need at least 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day.

Omega-3

Omega-3 is necessary for normal brain function, immune system function and the heart and blood vessels.

Vegetarians and vegans can get omega-3 from rapeseed and flaxseed oil, soy oil and soy-based foods (such as tofu) and walnuts. You can also get omega-3 from eggs and fish, if your diet allows it.

Omega-3 should be from 0.6 to 1.2% of an adult’s daily energy intake.

Protein

Protein is incredibly important. Proteins play a vital role in human nutrition, since they are the main component of the cells in all of the body’s organs and tissues. Protein is closely related to all life processes: metabolism, the ability to grow and multiply cells, the immune system and cartilage and tendon strength.

Most vegetarians have enough protein in their diet. They get it from soy products (tofu, soy drinks and textured soy protein, such as soy mince), cereals (wheat and oats), legumes and beans, quinoa, nuts and seeds. Non-vegans can find protein in eggs and dairy products (such as milk, cheese and yoghurt).

Daily requirement of protein depends on daily caloric intake. Protein should be from 10 to 35% of an adult’s daily energy intake.

Calcium

We all know that calcium helps to maintain strong bones. But it also helps the body maintain healthy blood vessels and regulate blood pressure. Calcium is extremely important in the process of blood coagulability.

Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods. Vegans can get it from leafy green vegetables (but not spinach), fortified soy, rice and oat milk, sesame seeds and tahini, almonds, dried fruits (especially dried figs) and white beans.

1000 mg That is the amount of calcium that adults need per day, so it’s important for vegans to have some of these foods in the diet.

Remember that your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. The amount of vitamin D which The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends for British adults is about 10 mcg a day. You can bring a low level of vitamin D up with fortified butter or fortified breakfast cereals. The body also makes its own vitamin D when exposed to sunshine.

So is it healthy to be a vegetarian or a vegan?

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but your diet doesn’t become healthier automatically when you cut out meat. If you're having foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, your vegetarian diet will not compensate for it. Remember:

1. Eat five to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day;
2. Choose lower-sugar options;
3. Have some beans, legumes, eggs and other sources of protein in your nutrition;
4. Have meals from greenery, bread, rice, dried fruits and other sources of calcium and iron;
5. Choose whole grains where it’s possible.

Elizabeth Nicholson
Elizabeth Nicholson medical journalist

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