Updated 12 October 2015

The healthy vegetarian diet

Appropriately planned vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate. Here's what to do.

The more restrictive the diet is, the more difficult it is to ensure adequate intake of all nutrients needed for optimal health and prevention of deficiencies. A wide variety of foods needs to be consumed. Correctly balanced vegetarian diets have the advantage of being high in fibre and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are derived from both animal and plant sources of protein. Some amino acids are manufactured by the body, while others (essential amino acids) are derived from dietary sources. Animal foods have a good variety of amino acids, including all the essential ones, whereas plant foods are lacking in some of them. It is therefore important to combine plant sources of protein correctly to ensure an adequate intake of all the different amino acids required. So for example, eating baked beans on their own does not comprise a complete protein whereas as baked beans on toast comprise a complete protein. (See guidelines below)

Vegetarians who exclude dairy products are at an increased risk of having a low calcium intake. Vegetarians who do consume dairy generally have an adequate calcium intake. Other foods which have a high calcium content include green, leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli, spinach, cabbage), tofu and almonds. These should be included daily particularly if dairy products are excluded. A supplement may be necessary if requirements are not met with these alternative sources of calcium.

Absorption of iron from plant based foods is lower than that from animal-based foods. Iron is important to prevent anaemia. See your doctor for a blood test if you suspect you may be anaemic. Foods which are high in iron include dried figs, apricots, raisins, tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, soya and eggs. Iron absorption is increased by the simultaneous intake of vitamin C, so eat iron and vitamin C foods together. Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits, guava, tomato, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and kiwi fruit.

A good intake of wholegrain foods and leafy vegetables will ensure an adequate intake of B vitamins, with the exception of Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is only derived from animal sources, so will need to be supplemented in vegans (someone who avoids all animal products including dairy).

Guidelines for meal planning

  • Eat a good variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and if desired, dairy products and eggs.
  • Choose whole unrefined foods and minimise intake of highly sweetened and fatty foods.
  • Eat a wide variety of different fruit and vegetables.
  • If dairy products and eggs are consumed, choose low-fat options to reduce the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Vegans must take a Vitamin B12 supplement.
Complement vegetable proteins

  • Combine dairy products with nuts and seeds, e.g. Waldorf salad ( walnuts) with yoghurt dressing.
  • Combine dairy products with legumes e.g. soyabean casserole with a glass of milk.
  • Combine dairy products with cereals and grains e.g. cottage cheese sandwich.
  • Combine nuts and seeds with legumes e.g. hummus (chickpeas and sesame seeds).
  • Combine legumes with cereals and grains e.g. baked beans on toast.
See a registered dietician if you are struggling with your vegetarian diet.

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