‘Vegetarian’ is an umbrella term used to describe plant-based diets. These diets eliminate animal flesh, like meat, chicken, fish and seafood. The focus being on fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, however, not all vegetarians follow the same dietary pattern. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is centred on plant-based foods, dairy and eggs, whereas, a vegan diet is solely comprised of plant-based foods. The article will focus on lacto-ovo vegetarians, as this is the most common form of vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian diet has a reputation for being a nutritious to maximise physical health and improve mental wellbeing. In general, vegetarian diets are lower in saturated fat and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Vegetarians are more likely to have a greater intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre, due to their abundant intake of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. This is strongly associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease, for instance, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. However, this does not mean that all vegetarian diets are superior to meat-containing diets. Vegetarian diets can still be highly processed and filled with empty calories, derived from white bread, ice-cream, chips and cake. Vegetarian or not, we need to bring our intake back to fresh, unprocessed food.
Vegetarians do need to be mindful of their protein intake. Protein is an essential macronutrient, responsible for growth, muscle development and recovery, hormone & enzyme production and blood clotting. There are plenty of protein-rich sources that can be found in a healthy vegetarian diet and include eggs, tofu, seitan, yoghurt, milk, plant-based milk, lentils, chickpeas, protein-fortified cereals, edamame, broccoli, spinach and spirulina. In Australia, the recommended intake of protein for adults is 46-61 grams per day. However, this is an arbitrary figure and does not account for individual variations, disease states, pregnancy and level of athleticism. To determine an accurate protein target and the most appropriate vegetarian options, speak with a qualified dietitian.
As a vegetarian, it is important to consume a variety of plant-based proteins. Plant-based proteins are deemed “incomplete” as no single source contains all nine of the essential amino acids. In contrast, animal-based proteins are considered “complete” as they contain the full amino acid profile. For a long time, it was believed that vegetarians had to combine specific plant-based proteins to achieve a complete amino acid profile. For instance, eating beans with rice, or peanut butter with wholegrain toast. However, the evidence demonstrates that the human body can store essential amino acids and combine them when necessary. Therefore, people should focus on consuming a variety of plant-based proteins to achieve nutritional adequacy and maintain a healthy nutrient profile.
Supplementation is not necessarily required if a well-balanced vegetarian diet is consumed. The exceptions would relate to individuals with specific health conditions, athletes, pregnant and lactating women, children and those following a restrictive vegetarian diet. Supplements to be mindful of include vitamin B12, calcium, and iron. To determine whether supplementation is necessary, discuss options with a registered dietitian, GP or pharmacist.
There is no right or wrong way to transition to a vegetarian diet. Some people make the transition overnight, whereas others prefer to incorporate vegetarian meals more slowly. Examples of how to do this include starting “Meat-Free Monday” or introducing one vegetarian meal each day. Seeking support from a registered dietitian is also beneficial. These clinicians can conduct comprehensive nutrition assessments, screen macronutrient and micronutrient intake and provide personalised recommendations and strategies to safely transition to a vegetarian diet.
Cover image: Veggie carrot and oats burger with cucumber onion tomato, Shutterstock