A vegetarian diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre and Vitamin C. But are they balanced? Find out.
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, other health reasons, and some because they sympathise with the animals that are being killed. Today, being a vegetarian or vegan 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.
The different types of vegetarians include:
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 healthier 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:
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:
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 products and foods, but for vegans there are other plant-based calcium sources, such as:
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.
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 vitamin B12 on a regular basis, either by taking a vitamin B12 supplement daily or eating vitamin B12-fortified food two to three times a day.
Omega-3 fatty acids could 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:
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:
Yes, it is possible to have a vegetarian diet and be healthier, but you need to ensure that it is a balanced diet and take note of the possible nutrient deficiencies. A healthier diet should be based on the following principles:
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 healthier 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.
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This article was last reviewed on
22 Nov 2023
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