People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons, including its health benefits. But if you’re making these mistakes, your vegetarian eating plan may not be as healthy as you think.
Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular in Australia, with recent figures showing that almost 2.1 million of us (11.2 per cent) follow plant-based diets. However, many vegetarians may be at risk of nutrient deficiency, if they are not taking the time to carefully plan their diets.
Vegetarian diets are based around plant foods. But that’s where the similarities end. Unfortunately, the term ‘vegetarian’ isn’t well defined, and can cause some confusion. There are three main types of diets in this category:
- Vegan: only plant foods are included
- Lacto-vegetarian: consisting of plant foods and dairy foods
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarians: plant foods, dairy, and eggs.
In addition, pescatarians are those who follow a vegetarian diet, but include fish and other seafood. They may or may not include eggs and/or dairy.
What are the health benefits?
While there isn’t enough data available to determine exactly how vegetarian diets affect long-term health, there is some evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk for heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
There is also some evidence that those who forgo meat are more likely to have lower body mass index (BMI), lower blood pressure, and lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. This is all in comparison to their fellow meat-eaters—all of which can reduce your risk for many chronic diseases.
The above may sound great, but you’re not likely to get these benefits unless you plan ahead.
For optimal health, our bodies require a large variety of nutrients—which is why we’re encouraged to eat widely from five different food groups. However, due to vegetarianism omitting lean animal protein (including eggs and dairy), there is a risk that these diets may be deficient in essential nutrients.
In particular, vegetarians are at risk of insufficient intakes of:
- Protein: required for growth and repair of cells
- Vitamin B12: needed for the brain, nervous system and formation of red blood cells
- Iron: helps red blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells
- Zinc: the body’s immune system depends upon it
- Omega-3: important for brain and cardiovascular health, along with anti-inflammatory properties
- Calcium: essential for strong bones.
Another common mistake vegetarians make is eating too much cheese. While it does contain protein, and adds flavour to vegetables, it can be very high in saturated fat and kilojoules. Vegetarians may also consume too many processed carbohydrates—such as cakes, biscuits and snacks, which also adds unnecessary sugar, fat and salt to your diet.
The need to plan
Vegetarian diets have the potential to be very healthy, but only if they are well-planned to ensure you have an adequate intake of key nutrients.
In order to ensure your vegetarian diet will provide you with good nutrition, try to include these foods each day, as recommended by the Dietitians Association of Australia:
- eggs, dried beans, lentils, nuts or seeds
- high-fibre breads and cereals
- dairy foods or calcium enriched soy foods
- a good variety of fruits and vegetables
- healthy fats like olive oil
- foods fortified with vitamin B12 if excluding dairy and eggs
- flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts and omega-3 fortified foods such as some types of bread.
Ask an expert
If you follow a diet of this kind, or are considering omitting animal products from your current one, it’s important to know if you’re meeting your nutritional needs. Talk to an accredited practicing dietitian who can look at your eating plan and ensure it’s a healthy one. They will also be able to provide advice on foods to include in your diet, as well as provide some yummy recipes to make your eating plan delicious and nutritious.