Vegetarian nutrition is a topic in its own right.
Anyone who is considering a move to a vegetarian diet needs to get themselves up to date on nutrition and where they will source the vitamins and minerals their body needs whilst excluding meat products.
Nutritionists have been telling us of the benefits of increasing our intake of plant-based foods and limiting the intake of meat and animal-derived foods, for years.
Food, eating delicious beautifully cooked food, is one of life’s pleasures.
Why abuse that and make yourself unhealthy through poor food choices?
Or worse still, latch onto a diet plan that can endanger your long term health.
So when considering a move to a vegetarian diet, vegetarian nutrition is a key consideration.
Understanding nutrition and the vegetarian diet
It’s perfectly natural to wonder about good nutrition from any diet that eliminates food groups.
After all, when you’ve been raised on a diet that includes animal products alongside plant-based foods, cutting out a part of that diet can be a cause for concern.
For those of you who are the parent of a child who declares they are no longer prepared to eat animals, you will have concerns that you don’t hurt your childs health by eliminating food groups.
A great place to start to understand vegetarian nutrition is with a recap of your body’s nutritional needs and the foods that satisfy those nutritional needs.
Let’s start with Essential Nutrients
There are 6 essential nutrients your body needs to function properly.
Nutrients are compounds, found in food, that are essential to life and health. They provide you with energy and are the building blocks for repair and growth. They’re necessary to regulate chemical processes in your body – converting food to energy and so on.
Your body needs macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macro means large. Your body needs macronutrients in relatively large amounts.
Macronutrients in your diet provide you with energy and the building blocks for growth and maintenance.
There are 3 macronutrients;
Micro is small so these are nutrients important to your health but that your body needs in relatively small amounts.
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients.
In summary then your body needs 6 essential nutrients for optimum health.
The 6 essential nutrients
- Fats (Lipids)
Carbohydrates are found in foods such as pasta, rice, cereals, bread, potatoes, milk, fruit and sugar.
Foods high in protein include meat, dairy, legumes, nuts, seafood and eggs.
Lipids are fats found in oils, butter, margarine, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, meat and seafood.
Vitamins are found in a wide range of foods as described in my Guides to Vitamins.
All foods contain some form of minerals, see my Guides to Minerals for full listings.
Where to find my guides to vitamins & minerals
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Water is essential to health taken either as a drink or contained in fruit and vegetables.
Can you get sufficient nutrients on a vegetarian diet?
Yes absolutely you can satisfy your bodies nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet.
The vegetarian diet is nutritionally sound.
It’s important to remember though that while vegetarian diets can have health benefits, it’s as easy to make unhealthy food choices as a vegetarian or vegan as on any other diet.
For example, if you limit your food intake to vegetarian versions of processed foods such as pizza, or rely on pasta or cheese as the main ingredients in your food plan, whilst they are vegetarian, they are not necessarily healthy.
In order to get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs for health, make sure to incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein sources such as beans, tofu or nuts into your diet.
Be mindful of meat or dairy “substitutions” because there are many substitutes you can buy at the supermarket that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
As with any eating plan, ensure you’re healthy as a vegetarian by limiting your intake of processed foods.
How can you be sure that your nutritional needs will be met on a vegetarian diet?
Ensuring your vegetarian diet provides all your bodies nutritional needs is simple.
You have access to my guides to vegetarian eating plus recipes to satisfy and inspire you.
You can also access my guides to vegetarian nutrition.
My guides on moving to a vegetarian diet and meeting all your body’s nutritional needs will also help you. Taken from sources across the internet and collated over time, the information I share with you and sometimes direct you to will help to allay any fears over vegetarian nutrition you may have.
People have concerns about vegetarian nutrition, and that is totally normal
Of particular concern when transitioning to a plant-based diet is where you get nutrients that typically come from meat and fish. Those nutrients include protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, and essential fats like omega 3 & 6.
By educating yourself on the vegetarian diet, and planning your meals to include as wide a range of ingredients as possible, your diet will have the balance of nutrients your body needs.
Still, it helps to be aware of good nutritional sources and in particular vegetarian nutritional sources.
Let’s go through the list of essential nutrients again.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are an essential nutrient and they should be your body’s main source of energy in a healthy, balanced diet.
Carbs are broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into your blood. The glucose then enters your body’s cells with the help of insulin.
Glucose is used by your body for energy, fuelling all your bodies activities from strenuous exercise to breathing. So be in no doubt that you need carbs in your diet.
Carbs are a hotly debated topic for weight management
But carbs are a hotly debated topic, especially in the weight-loss world. Diets such as Atkins and Ketogenic limit the intake of carbs to a low level.
The idea that carbs are bad and should be excluded from our diet has left many people confused about carbohydrates and their importance in a healthy eating plan. That includes maintaining a healthy weight.
It’s worth saying here that carbohydrate is a broad category and not all carbs are the same. It’s the type, quality and quantity of carbohydrate in your diet that’s important.
There’s strong evidence that fibre, found in wholegrain versions of starchy carbs, for example, is good for your health.
Hardly any foods contain only 1 nutrient, and most are a combination of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in varying amounts.
There are 3 different types of carbohydrates found in food: sugar, starch and fibre.
The type of sugars that most adults and children in the UK and the US eat too much of is ‘free’ sugars. Free sugars are those that are added to food or drinks, such as biscuits, chocolate, flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks.
The sugars in honey, syrups (such as maple, agave and golden syrup) and unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies happen naturally, but these still count as free sugars.
Starch is found in foods that come from plants. Starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, provide a slow and steady release of energy throughout the day. The wholewheat versions of these foods are preferable to increase the fibre in your diet.
Fibre is found in the cell walls of foods that come from plants. Good sources of fibre include fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread, wholewheat pasta, and pulses (beans and lentils). All of these will be included in your healthy vegetarian eating plan.
Protein requirements are around 0.75g per kilo of body weight. The recommendation is that women need 45g of protein per day and men, 55g.
Protein helps to build and repair muscle, and the good news is that there are many plant-based sources of protein. If your diet includes dairy products and eggs (the egg is considered a complete protein food), you will have no problem getting sufficient protein from your diet.
The levels of protein derived from plant foods such as nuts, peas, and beans are high and comparable to that of meat and fish.
3 Lipids (fats)
Fats play an important role hence their inclusion on the list of essential nutrients.
Fats give you calories needed for energy, and they help you absorb certain vitamins, thereby providing essential nutrients that your body needs to function.
There are two main types of fat; saturated and polyunsaturated.
Polyunsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature, so they are mainly referred to as oils. You’ll find them in plant-based oils which are a rich source of omega-6, and in seeds and nuts.
Saturated fats are a real problem for your health.
Saturated fats are a key ingredient in processed foods and the ‘treats’ people enjoy, such as cakes, pies, pastries and margarine. Note though, healthy eating guidance includes some saturated fats coconut oil being one of them.
Processed foods should be largely off the menu for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike.
The great news for vegetarians is that your diet naturally eliminates many of the sources of saturated fat and processed foods that have been linked to some serious health issues.
Processed meat including bacon, salami, sausages and ham are key offenders, and they are off your diet sheet.
Having said that, processed foods such as pizza and savoury snacks, ready meals and many tinned products that you recognise as being vegetarian will also be missing from your day-to-day healthy meal plan.
Linseeds, walnuts and soya beans are in. The same applies to monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocadoes and nuts such as almonds, brazils and peanuts.
Including a range of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and dairy products in your diet will ensure you get the vitamins your body needs for health.
If you don’t plan to include dairy products in your plant-based diet, particularly dairy products made from cow’s milk, the one vitamin you may lack is B12.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) is essential for the formation of red blood cells and keeping your nervous system healthy. The richest sources of B12 are cows milk and cow’s milk products, eggs, meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
Dairy alternatives may have added B12 but a supplement is advisable on a vegan diet.
Vitamin D is needed to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body to maintain healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, your body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on your skin when you’re outdoors.
Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods including red meat, oily fish and egg yolk. You’ll also find vitamin D in fortified breakfast cereals and mushrooms.
As with vitamin B12, if your diet doesn’t include dairy and you live in a part of the world where you have limited exposure to natural sunlight, some medical professionals advise that you consider taking a vitamin D supplement, particularly in the winter months.
Your body needs certain minerals to build strong bones and teeth and turn the food you eat into energy and to satisfy your nutritional needs.
Along with vitamins, a healthy balanced diet will provide all the minerals your body needs to work properly.
Some minerals are needed in larger amounts than others, e.g. calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. Others are required in smaller quantities, and for that reason, you may see them referred to as trace minerals, e.g. iron, zinc, iodine, fluoride, selenium and copper.
Despite being required in smaller amounts, trace minerals are no less important than other minerals.
Minerals are often absorbed more efficiently by the body if supplied in foods rather than as supplements. Eating a varied diet will help ensure an adequate supply of most minerals for healthy people.
Minerals are found in a wide range of foods so a vegetarian diet is unlikely to result in deficiencies.
Water is important to a range of bodily functions.
Water helps to flush out waste; it carries nutrients to all parts of your body and helps your cells to use the nutrients carried.
Water is essential for the regulation of body temperature.
You don’t need me to tell you that drinking water is essential, but you also get small amounts of water from the food you eat. The amount of water needed per day varies depending on gender, age and life stages. For more information, this website has some helpful information.
More about vegetarian nutrition
To find out more about vegetarian nutrition specifically, read on.