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It is common to hear people say that a vegetarian diet is healthier. But is it, really?

People become vegetarians for many different reasons. For some, it is for religious purposes, others health reasons, and some because they sympathise with the animals that are being killed. Today, being a vegetarian has become more appealing as there is a wide and tasty variety of vegetarian cuisine available. While a vegetarian diet generally avoids meat products, it does vary in the degree to which it excludes animal products.

Chilli Paste with Vegetables and Eggs 

The different types of vegetarians include:

  • Vegans: They are complete vegetarians. They do not eat meat, fish or any animal derived products, including eggs, honey, dairy products and gelatin.

  • Ovo-lacto vegetarians: They eat no meat, poultry or fish, but do eat eggs and dairy products.

  • Lacto-vegetarians: Lacto-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or eggs. However, lacto-vegetarians do consume dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt.

  • Ovo Vegetarians: Ovo-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. However, they do consume egg products.

  • Pescatarians: Pescatarians eat fish, but no red meat. They also consume eggs and dairy products.

  • Pollo-vegetarians: Pollo-vegetarians eat chicken, fish, dairy products and eggs, but not red meat.

  • Semi-vegetarians: This is a flexible form of vegetarianism, where meat is consumed occasionally; once or twice a week.

So You’re Thinking of Going Vegetarian?​

Young man buying fruits in supermarket 

A vegetarian diet can have health benefits, as it tends to be low in saturated fat and higher in fibre and Vitamin C. Vegetarians also tend to be slimmer than meat eaters. The reason? Food based on plant sources without any meat or dairy products tends to have a lot less saturated fat, which is related to raised cholesterol levels and the increased risk of heart disease. Vegetarians also end up eating fewer calories, since cereals, fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, tend to be lower in calories than meat and poultry for a similar sized serving.

But wait! A vegetarian diet may not be healthy if it is not a balanced diet. Alarm bells should ring if you eat the same thing day after day, or if you snack a lot on processed food like chips and cookies to fill you up.

It is important to replace the animal products removed from your diet with other food that can provide similar nutrients. A meat-free diet can be lacking in protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids. Vegetarians will need to include alternative sources of these nutrients by ensuring that the following is in their diet:

  • Eggs, beans, lentils, nuts or seeds

  • Dairy or soy products such as calcium enriched soymilk, tofu and tempeh

  • Wholegrains

  • Food that is vitamin B12 fortified if your diet excludes dairy and eggs

Worried about getting enough iron?

The good news is that red meat is not the only source of iron. Vegetarians who eat a balanced diet can meet their iron requirements, as many plant foods have vitamin C which helps in the absorption of iron. Some plant food sources of iron include:

  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh

  • Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice and oatmeal

  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, mustard seeds and coriander seeds

  • Vegetables: leafy green vegetables like spinach, pumpkin, sweet potato, potatoes, bok choy and broccoli

  • Others: iron-fortified cereals prune juice, raisins, dried fruit like apricot, tomato sauce and tomato paste

Consuming enough calcium?

Calcium helps to maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium also helps muscles and nerves work properly, helps blood to clot, and regulates enzyme activity. Calcium can be found abundantly in dairy foods, but for vegans there are other plant-based calcium sources, such as:

  • Legumes: tofu made with calcium sulphate and tempeh

  • Vegetables: leafy green vegetables and lady’s fingers (okra)

  • Drinks: calcium-fortified soy, rice milk, oat milk and orange juice

  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, sesame seeds and tahini

  • Others: dried fruit, pulses, brown (wholemeal) and white bread, calcium-fortified cereals and oats

And remember, the body also needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, which the body makes on its own when exposed to sunlight. Or you can get vitamin D from egg yolks, cod liver oil, or oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines.

Soft-boiled Eggs

What about vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that is found naturally in food from animal sources, such as meat, dairy products and eggs. It is required for proper red blood cell formation and for the development of the nervous system. A deficiency of vitamin B12 can result in anaemia and changes in the function of the nervous system.

Vegetarians who do not eat eggs and dairy products need to be especially careful to get enough B12 on a regular basis, either by taking a B12 supplement daily, or eating B12-fortified food two to three times a day.

Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are said to help lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, treat depression and boost brain health. A common source is through oily fish or fish oil supplements. Another good source is omega-3 enriched eggs. Vegetarians can still get their omega-3 from many other ways that include:

  • Nuts and seeds: flaxseed, chickpeas and hummus, chia seeds and walnuts

  • Vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy and pumpkin

  • Legumes: soy oil and soy-based food (such as tofu)

  • Oils: flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, olive oil and canola oil

Any non-meat protein choices?

Proteins are known as building blocks of life - they help to build and maintain your body, fight off disease, and help you feel full longer as they take longer to digest. While meat, eggs and dairy are good sources of protein, there are meatless protein options that include:

  • Nuts and seeds: quinoa, pumpkin seeds, almonds and walnuts

  • Pulses and beans: soy products like tofu and soy drinks, lentils, dried beans like chickpeas, kidney beans and black beans

  • Drinks: soy milk

  • Others: cereals based on wheat, oats and rice, peanut butter

Striking a Balance

Friends having picnic​​

Yes, it is possible to have a vegetarian diet and be healthy, but you need to ensure that it is a balanced diet and take note of the possible nutrient deficiencies. A healthy diet should be based on the following principles:

  • A balanced meal. HPB’s My Healthy Plate recommends that a meal is like a plate that is half filled with colourful fruit and vegetables, a quarter filled with wholegrains (such as brown rice, wholemeal bread or starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn), and a quarter filled with meat and others (like meat, fish, or tofu).

  • Avoid fad diets. They usually claim to help people lose weight quickly and easily with minimal effort, but any weight loss may be temporary. Any diet that requires you to exclude a food group, has the potential to leave you deficient in some nutrients. Health experts instead recommend making long-term changes by adopting a healthier diet and exercising regularly.

  • Limit processed food. Processed food tends to be high in fat, sugar and salt. Choose fresh produce instead, such as lean meats and fresh or frozen vegetables.

  • Avoid too much fat and sugar. Reduce the consumption of food and drinks that have high levels of fat and sugar, such as sweetened beverages, fast food, fried food and snacks.

Your vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate with careful planning to include a wide variety of food to meet nutritional needs. This is especially important for vegans, children, teenagers, athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

If you are already on a vegan diet, or considering going vegan, it would be a good idea to consult a dietitian. He or she can help ensure that you are consuming the right food for adequate nutrition and good health.

Ultimately, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be healthy and help to avoid some chronic diseases. Keep in mind the principles of variety, moderation and balance. Then you can enjoy a fit and strong body, savouring your favourite food for a long time to come.