Basic Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans
Being a well and healthy vegetarian or vegan needn’t be difficult and for most of people, it isn’t. But sometimes, especially when transitioning from an omnivorous diet, there can be problems. A knowledge of the nutrition basics can help. The American Dietetic Association has stated that a well planned vegetarian (or vegan) diet is nutritionally appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle. Note: A vegetarian diet includes dairy and eggs which a vegan diet doesn’t. These are significant as sources of calcium and B12 and vegans will need to pay special attention to these two nutritients. So what are the keys to planning a vegetarian diet well? Variety and Balance.
The mainstay of a veg*n diet breaks down into 3 groups: Fruit and Veg, Grains, and Proteins. How much of each of these groups we should eat varies with the individual. Choosing a variety of food from within each group helps ensure we get all the nutrients we need.
Generally, we eat enough protein to keep healthy if we eat enough calories. Vegan foods with plenty of protein include beans, tofu, and bread, with around 10-15 g protein per 100 g food, and nuts & seeds (including tahini, peanut/almond/cashew butter) which have around 20-25 g protein per 100 g food. Vegetarians may also include cheeses, with 20-35 g protein per 100g (soft cheeses having less protein than hard cheese), or free range eggs, which have 13 g protein per 100g; however it is not necessary to include these foods in the diet. So called ‘meat analogues’ or vegetarian meats can also be used to add variety in the diet; their protein content is very variable, depending on the type and brand. The National Health and Medical Research Council suggests adults need 50-65g of protein daily – that’s 1-2 cups of these protein rich foods – easy!.
Grains (and potatoes)
Grains are a rich source of carbohydrate; they bulk out a meal, and add energy. It is best to choose whole grains and whole grain products, the less processed the better, as these provide fibre, vitamins and minerals along with the energy from the carbohydrates. Grains are also a source of protein complementary to nuts, seeds and beans. They provide amino acids which the body needs, but which the other, more protein rich foods, lack. Eat grains in proportion to your energy needs.
Fruit and Veg
Eat lots of these!! The more fruit and veg you eat, the better (as long as you get enough calories). Fruit and veg are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre. Current recomendations are to eat about two serves (or two handfuls) of fruit, and five serves of veg (one serve is ½ cup vegies, or 1 cup salad leaves) every day. Eating more than that is fine; some research has suggested eating 8-10 serves of vegies for optimal health. There are lots of ways to eat your fruit and vegies: in salads, dried, chopped or whole (as a snack), blended in smoothies, cooked as sauces, soups or side dishes. Try to eat a variety – a good rule of thumb is to eat as many colours as you can, and not to cook the colour out of them. Green vegies (spinach & other leafies, brocoli, brussel sprounts) are especially important for vegetarians, as they are a source of iron, and vitamin C, which increases its absorption.
Include also, some healthy fats and oils (instead of saturated or trans fats). Saute with olive oil; use canola oil in baking; eat nuts and seeds. Try flaxseed oil (but don’t heat it). These help to keep your heart and brain healthy.
You’ll probably want to eat some ‘junk’ food – and there’s plenty of empty veg*n calories available (chips, cheap compound chocolate, two minute noodles). This is ok, if you don’t overdo it, but the ideal would be to find more nutritious ways to indulge yourself…. good quality dark chocolate and fresh fruits, or hummus and veggies, for example.
When you make changes in your diet or exercise, keep an eye on your weight. If you start consistently losing weight, and you don’t want to, increase how much you are eating from the Grains and Proteins groups. If you are gaining weight (and shouldn’t) add more fruit and veg, and be more choosy about ‘junk’ food. You may also find it useful to buy veg*n cookbooks which feature healthy recipes, or to browse online recipe forums. This can help to give you a healthy pattern of eating that’s right for you, so you don’t have to think about eating healthy – you just do it.
If you are struggling to thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, come and talk with me about it. You may have some health needs that others don’t, or may just need a little extra help in getting adjusted. My clients’ health, well-being and happiness are my top priority, and I can help you.