How to be a healthy vegetarian: the nutrients you need

Happy woman holding a brown paper bag of vegetables in her kitchen

Vegetarianism is becoming ever-more popular and for very good reason.  There’s much research to suggest that vegetarians are less prone to heart disease and degenerative diseases such as cancers, particularly of the bowel. 

The success of this way of eating, in terms of maintaining overall health, is in the meal planning, ensuring all essential nutrients the body needs are being obtained.

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer highlights key nutrients for vegetarians and where to find them.

Vitamin B12

First up is vitamin B12 because it’s only found in animal produce, much of which is not eaten by vegetarians.  Vitamin B12 is essential for the health of the nervous system, the brain and, most importantly, energy production.

However, the good news is that vitamin B12 is found in eggs, dairy produce and fortified foods such as cereals.  Many people struggle to absorb enough vitamin B12, hence it can be deficient in meat-eaters too.

Range of dairy products

Some Vitamin B12 can be made in the gut by the beneficial bacteria naturally living there, but only if that’s in good shape too.  Eating natural yoghurt will potentially help both issues by feeding the good bacteria AND providing some B12.

Consider taking a daily supplement containing vitamin B12 to ensure you’re not missing out.

Essential fatty acids

There are a group of fats known as essential fatty acids (omega-3s and 6s) which must be eaten as they can’t be made in the body.  In fact, it’s the omega-3s that provide most health benefits and are frequently deficient in the western world.

They’re called ‘essential’ because omega-3s are one of the key nutrients that control inflammatory processes in the body.  Inflammation is the primary cause of many things that go wrong in the body. For example, degenerative disease, skin problems, stiff joints and dementia.  The great news is that oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and to some extent tuna, are rich sources of omega-3s. If you do eat fish these should feature somewhere in the diet three times per week.

However, if fish is not for you, then flaxseeds, which are easily sprinkled onto cereal, and other nuts and seeds (nut butters are great) are also good sources.  If you’ve got dry skin, are constipated, have difficulty concentrating, have hormone imbalances or are frequently thirsty, then you may need a top up of omega-3s. Again consider taking a daily supplement.

Iron

We know from the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys (NDNS) that a large percentage of women of child-bearing age are deficient in iron.  Women are obviously more prone to iron deficiency because of their monthly periods. Iron is also an important nutrient for pregnant women as deficiency can cause learning difficulties and growth problems in the unborn child.

The richest source of absorbable iron is red meat.  Clearly, you are not going to eat this if you’re vegetarian!  However, there are plenty of other great sources of iron. For example, green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils and egg yolks are rich in iron. However ideally, they need to be eaten with vitamin C to aid absorption.  So, a perfect start to the day would be an egg-based breakfast with a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Scrambled egg breakfast with toast, tomatoes, mushrooms and a glass of orange juice

If you’re feeling very low in energy or are easily out of breath, then it’s worth getting your iron levels checked. The only way to know for sure if you’re iron-deficient is to ask your GP to check your serum ferritin levels.

Protein

Protein is the body’s main building blocks. It is an essential macro nutrient needed to build hormones, produce cells for the immune system, maintain a strong skeletal frame and for the hair, skin and nails

Protein is made from amino acids from foods and those produced in the body.  However, just like the essential fats, there are also essential amino acids which must be eaten.  These are generally obtained from animal produce (including fish).  However, by combining grains and beans every day (not necessarily at the same meal), you should be getting your quota if your diet is well-balanced.

A range of wholegrains in heart shaped dishes to show they are good for the heart

Additionally, soy protein does contain all these essential amino acids, albeit in slightly lesser amounts.  Think tofu, tempeh, organic soya milk and yoghurt which are not only low in fat but high in bone-loving calcium and magnesium.

With the range of foods on offer, it is easy to embrace vegetarianism and ensure you are getting all the essential nutrients your need.

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For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit our sister site Herbfacts

 

 

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