A vegetarian will base their diet on foods of plant origin. However, there are different levels of vegetarianism according to how much food is derived and eaten from animal sources. The major types of vegetarian are as follows:
- A ‘semi-vegetarian’ eats poultry and/or fish, dairy foods and eggs, but no red meat;
- A ‘lacto vegetarian‘ consumes dairy foods but no meat,poultry, fish or eggs;
- A ‘lacto-ovo vegetarian‘ includes dairy foods and eggs, but no meat, poultry or fish;
- A ‘pescetarian‘ includes fish and other seafood, but no meat or poultry (while eggs and/or dairy foods may or may not be eaten)
A vegan diet on the other hand, only includes plant-based foods such as cereals and grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, soy, nuts and seeds. It excludes all animal-derived foods including meats, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products (including products with casein, whey, rennet or gelatine), animal fats (e.g. lard and suet) and generally also honey and yeast.
What are the health benefits of following a vegetarian or vegan diet?
You may have heard the mantra for good health by Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He may be onto something here as vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fibre, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, as well as being lower in calories. There is a substantial body of evidence supporting the belief that in general, vegetarians typically enjoy a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Additionally, a vegan diet appears to be useful for increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals and for minimising the intake of dietary factors implicated in several chronic diseases.
Having said this, at the end of the day, the optimal diet for any one person depends on multiple factors such as age, gender, activity levels, current metabolic health, food culture and personal preference. Vegan and vegetarian diets may be appropriate and beneficial for some people, but not others.
Are there any health risks of eating this way?
There may be some potential nutritional shortfalls for those who follow a strict vegan or restricted vegetarian diet. If there is a lack of food variety in the diet, then the individual may be at risk of malnutrition and several nutrient deficiencies. These include:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fatty acids (particularly DHA)
- Vitamin D
The above nutrients are particularly important for certain population groups such as pregnant and breast feeding women, athletes, some chronic health conditions, children, adolescents and teenagers, and the elderly. Therefore, extra care should be taken if you fall into the above categories and decide to follow a vegan/vegetarian diet.
What should you be wary of when going vegetarian or vegan?
Be wary that not all foods are created equal in terms of nutrient value. It’s important to educate yourself about what foods and food groups contain the essential macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which are important for good health. For example, sources of haem-iron (blood/animal sources) is more bioavailable and better absorbed than non-haem (plant-based) sources. Therefore, knowing what foods that are highest in non-haem iron can help a vegan optimise their intake for that nutrient.
It’s also important to understand what your individual nutrient requirements are for your stage of life. For example, are you an athlete? Are you planning to fall pregnant? Are you pregnant or breast feeding? As nutrient and energy requirements are generally higher for these population groups, it may be more challenging to meet the requirements if you do not have a varied diet or you are a fussy eater. A Dietitian or Nutritionist can help you formulate the best nutrition and diet plan for your individual needs.
Often when changing diets and lifestyles, we don’t investigate properly and end up missing out on entire food groups, causing malnutrition and unnecessary stress on the body. To the other extreme, we may end up eating too much of a food group, such as when vegans increase their fat intake substantially to try and fill the gaps in the diet, often leading to weight gain and low energy.
Be prepared to take supplements. All vegans should be aware that they are unlikely to meet their vitamin B12 requirements through diet alone. No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B-12. Therefore, to avoid B-12 deficiency, vegans should regularly consume vitamin B-12 fortified foods, such as fortified soy and rice beverages, certain breakfast cereals, B-12 fortified nutritional yeast, and/or take a daily vitamin B-12 supplement. Most vegans also require a vitamin D and iodine supplement and some might require additional protein, calcium, iron and omega-3 (plant-based) supplementation.
As mentioned above, nutrient deficiencies are a risk so it is a good idea to have regular blood tests to ensure you maintain your adequate levels and supplement where necessary.
How can you ensure you’re getting enough nutrients?
First and foremost, if you decide to go vegan or vegetarian, seeing a Dietitian or Nutritionist, initially may prove to be very beneficial. They can analyse your dietary intake, likes and dislikes, and help you formulate a diet/meal plan that is going to help you meet your nutritional requirements. They can also make recommendations around the right type of supplements for you (if required) and educate you on ways of how to optimise your nutrient intake.
Other ways to ensure you are getting enough nutrients is to make sure you have a well-balanced, seasonal, varied diet. Eat lots of different plants (the more colour the better), try to include plenty of vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), plus fruits (including berries), beans/legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Be mindful to add in protein to every meal, including free range organic eggs (if vegetarian), legumes, lentils, organic non-GMO tofu and tempeh, and protein powders (as necessary), as well as healthy fats to optimise nutrient absorption. Don’t forget often these sources of protein are also sources of carbohydrates so you will need to watch portion control if weight is a concern.
You may also want to consider including foods in your diet that are fortified with vitamin B12 and other nutrients to optimise nutrient intake and help you meet your requirements.
5 tips on being a healthy vegetarian or vegan
- Eat a variety of foods daily.
- Be mindful of your nut and seed consumption, and your healthy fats in general. A cake made of nuts or avocado is going to provide a huge number of daily kilojoules, and any food eaten in excess will lead to weight gain.
- Start a food diary when you begin to track and monitor your food intake and any signs and symptoms. This will also allow your dietitian or nutritionist to monitor your daily intake until you gain a better understanding of what your body requirements are.
- Get regular blood tests, or check in with yourself often to see how you are feeling – are you tired? Fatigued? Have a foggy brain or struggling to be productive? Are you short of breath more easily? All these are signs of a potential iron/ferritin or B12 deficiency and should be tested for by your trusted practitioner.
- Source local, fresh, seasonal and organic produce to minimise exposure to pesticides and chemicals.