A balanced vegetarian or vegan diet will contain all the necessary nutrients for optimum health (including ample protein and iron), and is accompanied by some distinct health benefits. Plant based diets contain no animal protein or cholesterol, and are typically lower in saturated fatty acids, while containing significantly more folate, fibre, antioxidants, phytochemicals and carotenoids than meat-based diets.
For a healthy, well balanced diet, a variety of different foods should be consumed regularly, though it is not necessary to fuss over the special combining of nutrients at each meal.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, Australians can follow a healthy vegetarian lifestyle "if energy needs are met and the appropriate number and variety of serves from the Five Food Groups are eaten throughout the day."
On average, a typical meat-centric Western diet contains considerably higher protein intakes than recommended (this can lead to some adverse health effects). Plant based diets on average contain significantly less protein than meat-based diets, but do contain adequate amounts to meet recommendations and sustain optimum health. In order to obtain the full range of amino acids, it is recommended that protein from different sources be consumed (for example, rice and lentils, or beans on toast). Protein from different sources should be consumed throughout the course of the same day, but it is not necessary to combine them at the same meal.
Many people have been led to believe that sufficient iron can only be obtained from meat. This is not true. As the table above indicates, there are many non-animal sources of iron consumed by vegetarians. Consequently, those who follow a plant based diet typically have iron levels that are similar if not higher than those who eat meat. This can be attributed to the fact that the absorption of non-heam iron (that found in plant sources) is enhanced by the presence of vitamin C, which is generally present in higher levels in a vegetarian diet. As noted in a study published in The Medical Journal of Australia, vegetarians who eat a varied and well balanced diet are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than meat-eaters.
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient which assists with the proper formation of cells and the function of the nervous system. It is particularly important for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers to ensure their B12 intake is sufficient. The vitamin is created by bacteria and is found in high doses on the surface of decomposing substances such as meat and other animal products. It is also known to be consumed in higher doses by communities with lower sanitation and hygiene standards than would be found in a typical Western society. Although only a tiny amount (just 2μg daily) of B12 is required, our hygiene-conscious Western society has made it difficult for those consuming a purely plant based diet to naturally attain adequate amounts of this important nutrient without fortified foods or supplements. Some soy milks and some mock meats (e.g. some veggie sausages) have vitamin B12 added — check the label to be sure. To ensure an adequate supply of vitamin B12, simply have three serves of vitamin B12- fortified foods per day, or take a daily vitamin supplement containing at least 10 micrograms of vitamin B12 (many multivitamin tablets contain this amount.)
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
It is essential to consume regular doses of Omega 3 in order to retain optimum brain function, making Omega 3 an important nutrient in a healthy diet. While Omega 3 from oily fish can be accompanied by contaminants including mercury (not to mention the devastating impacts of commercial fishing on the environment), there are sufficient plant-based sources of this important nutrient as well. Reliable plant-based sources of Omega 3 include linseeds (or flax seeds), soybean oil, rapeseed oil, and walnuts. Having a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds (also know as linseed) or 1-2 teaspoons of the oil per day will ensure a good supply of omega 3 fatty acids. As the oil loses its value when heated, add it to a cold drink or use in a salad dressing. Alternatively, flaxseed oil capsules are available.
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and optimum bone health. It is naturally produced in the body, provided that there is regular exposure to sunlight by bare skin. If your exposure to sunlight is less than a few hours a week, taking a supplement such as a daily multivitamin containing vitamin D is recommended.
Consuming adequate amounts of calcium is essential to maintaining strong and healthy bones. Through clever marketing, the dairy industry has convinced many of us that only by consuming lots of dairy products can we maintain healthy bones. Nutritionally speaking, this is not correct. As the table above illustrates, calcium is found in a wide variety of non-animal foods. Many plant based foods and calcium fortified vegetarian products are good sources of absorbable calcium. Osteoporosis Australia recommends, amongst others, almonds, broccoli, cucumber, silverbeet, mustard cabbage, bok choy, celery, chick peas, dried figs and dried apricots, calcium set tofu, calcium fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and fruit juices. In fact, Osteoporosis Australia lists firm tofu as the food with the highest calcium content per serve, 832 milligrams per cup (250 ml or 260g).
Iodine is an important trace element that is necessary for normal physical and mental growth and development. Too little or too much iodine can cause health problems. Vegetarian sources of iodine include seaweed and iodised salt, and small amounts of these should be consumed for good health. Alternatively, a daily multivitamin tablet containing iodine can be take to help ensure an adequate intake.
A well balanced vegetarian diet containing a variety of foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes will ensure optimum health, and even help reduce the risk of some of the major health threats facing Australians today. Naturally, diet is not the only factor in leading a healthy lifestyle. Smoking and the consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and limited exercise are also major factors in health and well-being.
As is the case with any diet, differing life stages (such as pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence) require differing nutritional requirements, and should be carefully considered. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) have published extensive information relating to the nutrition of vegetarian diets. Please follow these links provided by PCRM for further information: