Is It Healthy?
The short answer is; maybe (how annoying). Plant-based diets can be very healthy, however, they do need some extra care when planning weekly meals to ensure that the individual is replacing the nutrients that they are not getting from animal-based foods. In particular, protein, iron, calcium, zinc, B12 and omega 3 fatty acids intakes need to be closely monitored.
As with all dietary approaches, it is going to feel good for some, while others may really not enjoy or feel good with a particular approach! So here is the basics to consider before you start.
There are a number of different sub-types of vegetarian and vegans diet such as semi-vegetarian, Lacto-vegetarian (no meat and eggs), and Lacto-ovo vegetarian (eats eggs) diets, which when properly planned, can provide all of the nutrients found in an omnivorous diet.
The first thing to know is that just because vegetarianism is deemed healthy, doesn’t mean that you are automatically going to be bursting with good health. There are well planned vegetarian diets, and there are the less optimal ones (note- oreo’s and barbecue shapes are deemed vegan, but that does not throw them straight into everyday’ wagon).
Iron & Vegetarianism Considerations
It is very common to see poorly planned plant-based diets leading to deficiencies such as low iron. This is because not all iron sources are equal.
Iron from animals is termed at ‘heme’ iron which is ready to be used by the body to carry oxygen around the body. Plant-based sources of iron are termed ‘non-heme’ and need to be changed before the body can use the iron in red blood cells.
For this reason, vegetarians and vegans need to consume about 1.8 times more than the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for iron when consuming a plant-based diet.
It pays to be across what foods are good sources of iron and assist absorption, as well as what may inhibit iron absorption. To enhance absorption, it can help to combine iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C, approximately 50mg such as tomatoes or kiwi fruit, to increase the absorption of the iron available in the food.
Eggs, legumes, spinach, and nuts are also substantial sources of iron.
Protein & Vegetarianism Considerations
Plant-based diets can provide a lot of high-quality proteins for fit and healthy people, however, it is important to get protein from a variety of sources as plant-based protein sources are not all complete.
For example, many plant-based diets have some essential amino acids, but not all. For a protein source to be deemed as high quality it needs to be readily digested and has adequate amounts of the 9 essential amino acids that our body cannot produce.
In a plant-based diet, amino acids of particular note are methionine and lysine. So, by ensuring you are up-to-date with what plant-based sources provide a good amount of protein, and eating a variety of these foods, you can ensure your protein intake is adequate.
As a rule of thumb, aim for 1-2g protein per kilo body weight depending on activity level. Refer to the below table for further information.
Micronutrients & Vegetarianism Considerations
The list below outlines the major micronutrients vegetarians and vegans should be concerned with when planning their diet day-to-day. By focussing on these nutrients initially, over time, you will be in the habit of regular consumption of these foods and will have to pay less attention. It is a good time to note that if you are regularly active, to get blood tests on a biannual basis to ensure that your iron and B12 levels are on point.
As mentioned previously, vegetarian’s need 1.8 times usual RDI Iron (32mg daily for vegan/vegetarians) along with regular monitoring of Iron levels, especially during heavy training loads. 50mg Vitamin C with the meal (kiwi fruit/1 medium orange, ½ red capsicum, 50g tomato) will assist with absorption. Avoid tea/coffee with meals as they contain tannins which impede absorption of iron.
Zinc & Vegetarianism Considerations
8 mg (females) 14mg (males) daily with some research suggesting that vegans require upwards of this.
1 mg = 1 tablespoon of nuts, seeds or nut/seed butters • ¼ to ½ cup cooked beans • 1 tablespoon wheat germ • 1 cup cooked grain • 2 slices of bread • 2 cups cooked leafy green
B12 & Vegetarianism Considerations
2.4mcg per day required. Not found in plant foods, I would look to supplementation for vegan diet.
Omega 3 & Vegetarianism Consideration
Recommended at 100-300mg DHA supplement along with the inclusion of 2-5g from foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds and enriched eggs.
Recommended 1000mg per day. Vegetarians can still get calcium from dairy foods. However, within the vegan population milk is removed from the diet, which can lead to an inadequate intake of calcium.
- Leafy green vegetables – broccoli, collards (cabbage family), bok choy, Chinese cabbage and spinach.
- 1cup of cooked spinach contains 100 mg, although only five per cent of this may be absorbed. This is due to the high concentration of oxalate, a compound in spinach that reduces calcium absorption.
- Broccoli contains about 45 mg of calcium, but the absorption from broccoli is much higher at around 50–60 per cent.
- Soy and tofu – tofu (depending on type) or tempeh and calcium-fortified soy drinks
- Nuts and seeds – brazil nuts, almonds and sesame seed paste (tahini). Fifteen almonds contain about 40 mg of calcium.
- Calcium-fortified foods – including breakfast cereals, dairy milk alternatives, fruit juices and bread. One cup of calcium-fortified breakfast cereal (40 g) contains up to 200 mg of calcium.
So, while it may not be right for everyone, if you keep an eye on the nutrients outlined in the article, it is very possible to not only survive on a plant-based diet but really enhance your health through focussing on nutrient-dense plant foods.
By no means is this the holy grail of diet, but vegetarianism is a dietary approached loved by many and when done properly can help you live out your years with that sparkly glowy skin you see insta-famous vegetarians have (or is that just good lighting?).
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