Vegetarians need to be conscious of getting plenty of protein and nutrients to keep their health on par with their meat-eating friends
Despite all the fanfare that pro-meat diets like paleo and keto are getting, statistics show that the number of vegetarians in Australia — or flexitarians, i.e. those who eat a mostly vegetarian diet — are on the rise for a variety of reasons, including people seeking the health benefits of going meat-free, plus reducing their environmental footprint and cruelty to animals.
Given a vegetarian diet could technically include Margherita pizzas and bowls of hot chips, it’s not an automatically healthy choice. In fact, vegetarians need to be conscious of getting plenty of protein and nutrients to keep their health on par with their meat-eating friends. Here’s how:
Tofu is often thought of as the vegetarian’s go-to protein replacement, but it’s certainly not the only option for ensuring you get enough protein to fuel muscle growth and repair.
Some people have pointed the finger at soy products, such as tempeh and tofu, for increasing cancer risk, however, dietitians say the link is not backed by solid scientific evidence — and suggest soy products may even reduce cancer risk.
Kate Marsh, advanced accredited practicing dietitian and vegetarian expert, says getting a wide variety of protein sources is your best bet, and suggests the following ground rules to all vegetarians to ensure you get ample protein:
- Include plant proteins such as legumes (lentils, chickpeas, dried/canned beans) and soy products (tofu, tempeh) in your meals daily.
- Choose wholegrains such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth over refined grains.
- Eggs and dairy (eg. milk, yoghurt, cheese) are good sources of protein for those on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
- If you’re vegan, soymilk provides a similar protein content to dairy milk, but bear in mind that other milk alternatives such as rice, almond and oat milks are low in protein
- Add nuts and seeds to your meals or include these as a snack
- Use natural nut butters in place of butter or margarine
This awesome nutrient is responsible for helping our bodies pump fresh oxygen through our cells, as well as boosting energy and powering muscles, so you definitely want to make sure you’re getting a good amount.
Women need a lot more iron than men – 18mg a day compared to 8mg — and the best way to ensure your body is getting ample iron is to spread small amounts throughout the day, otherwise you risk peeing it all out.
Meat eaters’ default source of iron is red meat, but vegetarians have to look to legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds and some grains.
“Things like quinoa and amaranth are particularly high in iron compared to other grains,” Marsh explains.
“We also get some iron from green leafy vegetables and dried fruits.”
The best way to max your iron intake is by combining iron sources with orange and red vegetables because their vitamin C helps the body absorb it.
But be careful having a cuppa or glass of wine with an iron-rich meal because the tannins in tea, coffee, wine can slow down absorption, as can soy proteins, so don’t base every meal around tofu or you could compromise your energy levels.
Some people opt to take iron supplements, but speak to your doctor first, as too much iron can be toxic.
This trace mineral is crucial for our immune system, and is used for our senses of taste and smell.
Some of the most potent sources of zinc are beef, pork and lamb, but Marsh says vegetarians can still get enough from nuts, wholegrains and legumes.
“The legumes, tofu, nuts and grains tend to overlap a lot between the protein, iron and zinc,” she explains.
Calcium helps us maintain strong bones, and lacto-vegetarians, who consume dairy, will be able to get most of their calcium from milk, cheese and yoghurt.
“There are other kinds of plant sources for people who aren’t consuming dairy,” Marsh says.
“Calcium’s also in tofu, kale, some Asian greens, almonds and tahini. Some soy milks are also fortified with calcium.”
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