Are you getting well-balanced nutrition in your vegetarian diet?
Vegetarianism is without doubt a very healthy option, but it is very important to ensure that your food intake is well-balanced. This is not very difficult or as clinical as it might sound. Most of the meals you already eat probably contain ingredients from the different food groups.
Vegetarians could stuff their faces with chips and chocolate at every meal, but they would not be doing their health any favors. It doesn't have to be all 'rabbit food' either.
A varied vegetarian diet will supply all the essential nutrients you need to be fit and healthy. A typical vegetarian diet closely matches dietary recommendations for healthy eating, being low in saturated fat and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
This simple nutrition pyramid shows what types of food a vegetarian should eat and roughly in what quantity and proportion. Oils, butter and fats are at the top because we only need relatively small amounts.
Bread, cereal, rice and pasta are at the bottom because we should eat these foods the most.
Do not worry when you stop eating meat and fish, that you might be in danger of some nutritional deficiency—this is not the case.
All the nutrients you need can be easily obtained from a well-balanced vegetarian diet. In fact, research shows that a vegetarian diet is far healthier than that of a typical meat-eater. As a general rule, as long as you eat a variety of foods including grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts or seeds, a small amount of fat, with or without the dairy products, your diet should be healthy and you will be getting all the nutrients you need.
For new and old veggies alike, here's some useful information for reference...
Nutrients are usually divided into five classes:
Proteins, Carbohydrates, Fats (including oil), Vitamins, and Minerals.
All are important to our well-being, although they are needed in varying quantities, from 250g of carbohydrates a day, to less than two micrograms of vitamin B12.
Most foods contain a mixture of nutrients (there are exceptions, like pure salt or sugar), but it is convenient to classify them by the main nutrient they provide.
Meat supplies protein, fat, some B vitamins and minerals (mostly iron and zinc). Fish, in addition to the above, supplies vitamins A, D and F. All of these nutrients can be easily obtained from vegetarian sources.
Women need about 45g of protein a day -- more if pregnant, lactating or very active. Men need about 55g -- again more if very active, although most people eat much more than this anyway.
Vegetarians obtain protein from:
• Nuts—Hazels, brazils, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pine kernels.
• Seeds—Sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, linseeds.
• Legumes—Peas, beans, lentils, peanuts.
• Grains and Cereals—Wheat (in bread, flour, pasta), barley, rye, oats, millet, maize (sweetcorn), rice.
• Soy products—Tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), veggie burgers, soy milk.
• Dairy products—Milk, cheese, yogurt.
• Free-range eggs
You may have heard that it is necessary to balance the complementary amino acids in a vegetarian diet. Proteins are made of units called amino acids. There are 20 different ones in all. We can make many of them in our own bodies by converting other amino acids, but eight cannot be made. They have to be provided in the diet, and for this reason they are called essential amino acids.
Single plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids we need in the right proportions, but when we mix plant foods together, any deficiency in one is cancelled out by any excess in the other.
We mix protein foods a lot, both meat-eaters and veggies. It is a normal part of the human way of eating. Examples are beans on toast or muesli.
It is known that the body has a pool of amino acids, so that if one meal is deficient, it can be made up from the body's own stores.
Because of this we do not have to worry about complementing amino acids all the time, as long as our diet is generally varied and well-balanced. Even those foods not considered high in protein are adding some amino acids to this pool.
Carbohydrate is our main and most important source of energy; most of it is provided by plant foods.
There are three main types: simple sugars; complex carbohydrates or starches; and dietary fiber.
The sugars or simple carbohydrates can be found in fruit, milk and ordinary table sugar. Refined sources of sugar are best avoided as they provide energy without any associated fiber, vitamins or minerals and they are the main cause of dental decay.
Complex carbohydrates are found in cereals/grains (bread, rice, pasta, barley, millet, buckwheat, rye) and some root vegetables, such as potatoes and parsnips. A healthy diet should contain plenty of these starchy foods as a high intake of complex carbohydrates is now known to benefit health. The unrefined carbohydrates, like wholemeal bread and brown rice are best of all because they contain essential dietary fiber and B vitamins.
The World Health Organization recommends that 50-70 percent of energy should come from complex carbohydrates. The exact amount that you need depends upon your appetite and also your level of activity. Contrary to popular belief, a slimming diet should not be low in carbohydrates. In fact, starchy foods are very filling in relation to the number of calories that they contain.
Dietary fiber, or non-starch polysaccharide (NSF) as it is now termed, refers to the indigestible part of a carbohydrate food. Fiber can be found in unrefined or wholegrain cereals, fruit (fresh and dried) and vegetables. A good intake of dietary fiber can prevent many digestive problems and protect against diseases like colon cancer and diverticular disease.
Fats and Oils
Too much fat is bad, but a little is necessary to keep our tissues in good repair, for the manufacture of hormones and to act as a carrier for some vitamins.
Like proteins, fats are made up of smaller units called fatty acids. Two of these fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acids are termed essential as they must be provided in the diet. They are widely found in plant foods.
Fats can either be saturated or unsaturated (mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated). A high intake of saturated fat can lead to a raised blood cholesterol level. Vegetable fats tend to be unsaturated and animal fats saturated.
Mono-unsaturated fats, such as olive oil or peanut oil, are best used for frying as poly-unsaturated fats like sunflower oil are unstable at high temperatures.
Vitamin is the name given to several unrelated nutrients that the body cannot synthesize, either at all or in sufficient quantities. The one thing that they have in common is that only small quantities are needed in the diet.
The main vegetarian sources are listed as follows:
Red, orange or yellow vegetables like carrots and tomatoes, leafy green vegetables and fruits like peaches. It is added to most margarines.
This group of vitamins includes B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cyanocobalamin), folate, pantothenic acid and biotin.
All the B vitamins except B12 occur in yeasts and whole cereals (especially wheat germ), nuts, legumes, seeds and green vegetables. Vitamin B12 is the only one which might cause some difficulty as it is not present in plant foods. Only very tiny amounts of B12 are in fact required and vegetarians usually get this from dairy produce and free-range eggs.
It is sensible for vegans and vegetarians who consume few animal foods to incorporate some B12 fortified foods in their diet. Vitamin B12 is added to some yeast extracts, soy milks, veggie burgers, bread and some breakfast cereals.
Fresh fruit, salad vegetables, all leafy green vegetables and potatoes.
This vitamin is not found in plant foods, but humans can make their own when their skin is exposed to sunlight.
It is also added to most margarines and is present in milk, cheese and butter. These sources are usually adequate for healthy adults. The very young, the very old and anyone confined indoors can compensate with a vitamin D supplement especially if they do not consume dairy products.
Vegetable oil, wholegrain cereals and free-range eggs.
Fresh vegetables, cereals and bacterial synthesis in the intestine.
Minerals perform a variety of functions in the body. Some of the most important minerals are listed below.
Important for healthy bones and teeth, with teenagers tending to need slightly more intake than adults. Found in dairy produce, leafy green vegetables, bread, tap water in hard water areas, nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds), dried fruits, and cheese; vitamin D helps calcium be absorbed.
It is particularly important for teenage girls to ensure an adequate intake of iron. Iron is needed for the production of red blood cells. Found in leafy green vegetables, wholemeal bread, molasses, eggs, dried fruits, lentils and legumes. A good intake of vitamin C will enhance absorption of vegetable sources of iron.
Plays a major role in many enzyme reactions and the immune system. Found in green vegetables, cheese, sesame and pumpkin seeds, lentils and wholegrain cereals.
Nutrition information provided courtesy of 21st Century Vegetarian: