Famous singer and animal rights activist k.d. lang made a wise comment when she said: "We all love animals. So, why do we call some 'pets' and others 'dinner?'"
Vegetarianism certainly makes sense on many different levels. In terms of your health, it can also be beneficial. But moving over to a vegetarian diet should be done carefully - preferably in consultation with your GP or dietician.
Here are a few essential tips on ensuring an adequate nutrient intake:
Make sure you eat three meals and two to three nutritious snacks every day.
Your protein intake may be limited on your new vegetarian diet, especially if you exclude fish, dairy and/or eggs. If this is the case, try to eat soya mince, tofu, legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas or nuts at every meal.
If you're a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, eggs can provide a form of high-quality protein, iron and omega-3 fatty acids (if you go for the enriched varieties). You can eat an egg every day. Ideally, eggs should be poached or boiled rather than fried in butter or oil.
Research has shown that vegetarians are at increased risk of osteoporosis. So, getting enough calcium should be a top priority. Obvious sources for lacto-vegetarians include milk and dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese. Canned fish with bones such as pilchards or salmon is also a good option for fish-eating vegetarians. Vegans should try to get their calcium from dark green leafy vegetables, nuts (particularly almonds), seeds, oranges, dried fruit, calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, flour and fruit juice, and consider taking a calcium supplement.
While studies show that the iron status of vegetarians is usually normal, the risk of iron deficiency is slightly greater because the best sources of highly absorbable iron are animal foods, e.g. red meat, chicken, fish and egg yolk. Plant sources which contain iron include barley, baked beans, tomatoes, apricots and raisins, fortified breakfast cereals, whole-wheat bread, soya mince, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. Make a point of including these foods in your diet and keep an eye on your iron levels, especially if you're a woman. (NOTE: The iron absorption of food is lowered when the food is eaten with eggs, bran, Ceylon tea and coffee. Try to eat iron-rich foods separate from these foods and beverages.)
We mainly get vitamin B12 from animal food sources. If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you should be okay, but if you don't consume eggs or dairy, consider taking a B12 supplement.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) can sometimes lack in the vegetarian diet. Make sure you get enough of this vitamin through low-fat milk (2%), yoghurt, cheese, fortified cereals, flour and bread, wholegrain breads, spinach and broccoli.
The intake of zinc, an important mineral that plays a role in digestion and metabolism, can also be problematic. Make sure you include zinc-rich foods, such as milk and dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals, wholegrains, dry beans and nuts, in your diet every day. Soya products may also be fairly good sources of zinc. In general, adequate zinc intake correlates well with appropriate protein intake.
If you don't eat fish at least twice a week, your intake of the omega-3 fatty acids may be lacking. Omega-3 fats are generally found in fatty fish and fish oils. However, canola oil, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soybean oil, soybeans, tofu, walnuts and walnut oil are also relatively good sources. Include more of these sources or consider taking an omega-3 supplement.
Beware of your fat intake. Although vegetarian diets generally contain less saturated fat, it's possible to load up on too much fat and kilojoules if your diet includes chips, ice cream, full-cream milk, cheese and lots of nuts. Rather opt for low-fat dairy products and steer clear of deep-fried foods.
Vegetarian diets are usually high in fibre, which adds bulk to the diet. During the first few weeks of switching over to the vegetarian diet, you might feel slightly bloated and may even suffer from diarrhoea as a result of the added fibre. Try to drink enough water throughout the day and consider substituting whole-grain cereals for more refined varieties, even if it's just for the first few days.
- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, updated December 2010)
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