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.

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition, health and wellness advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

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

 

 

How to be a healthy vegetarian: top dietary tips

Woman in kitchen holding bottle of olive oil wutg basket of peppers on work surface

It’s nearly time to celebrate National Vegetarian Week. Vegetarian numbers are on the rise in the UK and there are many reasons for this. They include health, a concern for animal welfare and the environment, or simply a change in taste.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

A vegetarian is anyone who does not eat meat, fish or poultry or foods containing them, but the term is often used in a much wider context. For example flexitarian (flexibly vegetarian), pescatarian (happy to eat fish), lacto-vegetarian (eats dairy, but not eggs) and ovo-vegetarian (eats eggs but not dairy).

 Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer shares her top tips on how to be a healthy vegetarian.

Plan your protein needs

It can sometimes be hard for vegetarians to meet protein needs, as well as requirements for certain trace minerals. Protein is essential for hormone production, the immune system and strong muscles and bones, particularly, as we age.

Plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids found in animal produce. But the good news is that you can combine grains and beans to get all the essential amino acids the body needs. For example, a bean-based chilli con carne with rice is a great choice and satisfies this requirement.

Bean and rice salad stew

Most animal produce, including eggs, milk and dairy, contain all the essential amino acids. Therefore, if you’re eating these regularly you should be able to meet the body’s needs. It’s important to eat protein at every meal, to ensure the body gets what it needs but also to keep blood sugar and energy levels sustained throughout the day.

There are also plenty of vegetarian protein powders, made from whey, pea or hemp, which can be added to smoothies. These are especially useful to top up protein needs if you’re very active or stressed (when the body needs more support generally).

Top tip: eat plenty of pulses, soya products, nuts and seeds, eggs and cheese.

Plan your micro nutrient needs

Vegetarians may be more susceptible to low levels of certain minerals such as the easily absorbable heme-iron found in meat. However, iron can be found in vegetarian sources such as pulses, nuts, seeds, cereals, green leafy vegetables, tofu, dried fruit, molasses and fortified foods.

Vegetarian sources of iron

Vitamin C helps boost uptake of iron, so eat a piece of fruit or some vegetables at the same time. Alternatively, go for a glass of orange juice with your breakfast or a fresh fruit salad as a dessert or starter.

Zinc is essential for the immune system and many other key body functions. Therefore, put milk and dairy products, eggs, sourdough bread, cereal products, green leafy vegetables, pulses and pumpkin seeds on the menu. Healthy snacking is another way to help increase levels – try eating seed mixes or sprinkle them over salads and fruit. Try making pulse-based dips such as hummus.

homemade hummus with seed sprinkles

Vegetarians can run the risk of being low in vitamin B12 which is essential for energy production, although vegans are at greater risk since it’s only found in animal produce.

Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth and can help to protect against osteoporosis in later life. Non-dairy sources can be sourced from foods such as tofu, fortified soya and rice milk, almonds, dark green vegetables and sesame seeds.

Top tip: Include milk, dairy products and eggs if they’re still part of your daily diet.

Plan your omega-3 needs

The essential omega-3s can often get forgotten by vegetarians, particularly if you’re not eating fish. They are called ‘essential’ because omega-3s support hormones, eye health, the heart, joints and skin but the body cannot make them and so these need to be included in your diet.

A range of seeds on spoons

The good news is the body can convert something called ‘ALA’ found in flaxseeds, rapeseed oil, soy oil, pumpkin seeds, tofu and walnuts, into the beneficial essential fats. Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines already contain plenty of these beneficial fats, so if you’re a pescatarian you are more than likely including these types of fish regularly in the diet.

Plan your supplement needs

Even though you’ll hopefully be planning your diet well, it’s always good to cover all bases with a high-quality, daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement as well. It’s like having a really cost-effective health insurance policy! You can also take vegetarian omega-3 supplements to ensure you’re meeting your daily needs.

There are lots of health benefits to being vegetarian and with a little planning you can make sure that you have the healthiest vegetarian diet possible.

 FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition, health and wellness advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

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

Vegetarian protein: everything you need to know

 

A growing number of Britons are cutting meat from their diets and looking to fruits, vegetables, nuts and other plant-based foods for healthier dietary options.  Whilst this may be considered a healthier way of eating, vegetarians need to keep a close eye on protein intake.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares some top tips for upping your protein intake the vegetarian way.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

VEGETARIAN VS. PESCATARIAN VS. VEGAN

Vegetarians eat all plant-based food, plus eggs and dairy produce and of course don’t eat any white or red meat.  Some vegetarians do eat fish which is known as a pescatarian diet.  Vegans eat only foods from plant origins – no dairy.

WHAT IS PROTEIN?

Much of the body is made up of protein or uses protein to function. It builds body tissue, including muscle and it can be used as an energy source. It helps build hormones, forms antibodies within the immune system and helps to maintain the essential fluid balance in cells, to name just some of its most important functions.

Protein is made up of amino acids; there are eight essential ones which the body cannot make, and therefore need to be eaten in the daily diet in adequate amounts.  Animal sources, including fish, generally contain all the amino acids essential for life, whereas plant sources (except soya and hemp), need to be combined to ensure adequate needs are met. Combining rice with beans is a great way of obtaining all the essential amino acids.

The body will make protein only as long as it has sufficient levels of all the amino acids stored up.  When one amino acid is deficient, our bodies are unable to produce most proteins; in this case, either muscle protein will be broken down or our metabolism will use protein for energy.

WHAT ABOUT VEGETARIAN PROTEIN?

Whilst we know that beans and nuts aren’t complete sources of protein, we also know that humans don’t need to eat all the essential amino acids at every meal.  For vegetarians this means that whilst combining vegetarian sources is the way to go to ensure adequate protein intake, this doesn’t need to be done at every meal.

Quinoa is an amazing grain that looks a little like couscous but has a much better nutrient profile.  It’s high in protein at around eight grams per serving when cooked, and it’s also packed full of iron and other essential trace minerals.  You can use it like rice but why not just add some roasted vegetables, using as many colours as you can find, and you’ve got a great evening meal.  It will also make an excellent cold lunch on-the-go the next day.

Soy is pretty much a complete protein; it’s a little low in a couple of amino acids but it fares much better than other beans.  Ideally try to use the fermented soya sources such as tofu, tempeh or natto.  Tofu doesn’t have much natural taste but it’s easy to add to smoothies for an additional protein source or can be included in stir fries where it will take on the other strong flavours in the pan, such as garlic or ginger.

Rice and beans tend to make up a large percentage of the vegetarian diet and when combined they provide all the essential amino acids.  Plus don’t forget chickpeas (think delicious hummus with some crudités) and lentils which can be added to soups or stews and substituted for meat in a chill con carne (perhaps with some soya mince).

Nuts and seeds are also great protein sources; if you’re stuck for an energy-boosting breakfast on the run, then nut butters such as cashew, almond or pumpkin are great to spread onto oatcakes or wholemeal bread and help keep blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day.

And finally, one other great source of protein is hemp.  It has an excellent nutrient profile including some essential omega-3 fats.  For those people who need a little extra boost, then it can be bought in powdered form and added to smoothies; this also makes a great recovery drink after a work-out.

And finally let’s not forget dairy and eggs – these provide endless meal possibilities and good levels of protein.

WHAT ELSE IS IMPORTANT FOR VEGETARIANS TO CONSIDER?

As well as protein, it’s worth acknowledging some other potential nutrient deficiencies that may occur with the vegetarian diet.

Although some essential minerals and vitamins are more readily available from meat or fish sources, a balanced diet should provide a vegetarian (although maybe not a vegan) with all the nutrients they need.  Care just needs to be taken to ensure adequate iron intake, as the most bio-available form is found in red meat. Vitamin B12 is also only available in animal sources, so some vegetarians and vegans may like to consider supplementation of these two nutrients.

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition and health advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

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