Do you want to leave a lighter carbon footprint? Are you seeking higher health? Or do you have too much empathy for animals to see them eaten or mistreated? Well then a vegetarian or vegan diet might be for you.
Whether you’re keen to pledge yourself to a total vegan lifestyle or go part-time during the week, you’ve got some learning and cooking to do as it’s not as simple as just sticking to fruit and veg. So let’s look at some practical tips on how to get the balance right and some recipes at the ready for all to enjoy.
About our expert:
Passionate vegetarian and leading Accredited Practising Dietitian, Sue Radd runs a busy private practice in Sydney – Sue Radd’s Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic. Inspired to make a difference in home kitchens, Sue has developed a series of themed, healthy cooking workshops showing people how to use readily available fresh foods to add flavour and health benefits. The new Eat to Live Cookshops are run from the Sydney clinic in a custom built demonstration kitchen. Sue is also an experienced speaker, media commentator and writer and her publications include Eat to Live and The Breakfast Book.
The first step is to fall in love with legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. These are the super sources of minerals like zinc, iron and calcium in a vegetarian diet, while supplying filling power and unique phytonutrients to fight disease. Let’s face it we all could benefit from learning how to use more wholegrains like barley, buckwheat and quinoa and cooking up a storm with black-eyed beans, red lentils and chickpeas. Next you need to keep check on some key nutrients:
Don’t be concerned about getting enough protein – that’s the least of your worries. Research shows that vegetarians and vegans living in western countries get sufficient. So long as you have good variety in your diet and eat adequate calories to maintain a healthy weight, you won’t be deficient. However, vitamin B12 and calcium are another issue. These are two limiting nutrients in vegan diets that take a little planning to get right.
Vitamin B12 and calcium
B12 doesn’t occur naturally in plant foods and calcium can be in short supply without dairy, so you’ll need to include fortified products and/or supplements to help you bridge the gap. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from if you live in Australia, the US or UK, for example. Think soy or rice milk alternatives enriched with B12 and calcium. Two to three serves per day of just these foods should have you covered for B12. You can top up the calcium to required levels if you also include nuts/seeds, dried fruits and Asian greens on a daily or regular basis.
Zinc can be a struggle unless you focus on enjoying dishes with legumes, wholegrains and / or nuts and seeds each day. One mistake new vegans make is to eat a lot of carb foods for filling power – but they mostly use refined carbs like white bread, white rice and other white flour products! Yet wholegrains, and products made from these, usually have higher zinc levels. Despite their higher phytate content (which reduces but doesn’t totally block the absorption of zinc), they still deliver more zinc to your body than having ‘white’ or refined grain foods.
You won’t get the long chain omega 3’s (e.g. DHA) found in fish from a vegan diet unless you take an algal supplement. This is readily available in the US but not so easy to track down in Australia unless you take it as part of a formulation containing other fatty acids. However, the parent compound called ALA is richly found in chia seeds, linseeds, walnuts and some other plant foods and converted by the body to the same stuff. In fact, many studies show significant heart health benefits from foods containing this shorter chain omega 3. And if you limit your intake of vegetables oils like sunflower, safflower and soybean oil and switch to olive oil, you have a much better chance of promoting the conversion of ALA in the body to the long chain omega 3 you’d get from fish. (Without getting overly complicated, the vegetable based oils are high in omega 6, which competes for the same enzyme in your body required to make DHA/EPA).
Tasty and filling vegan meal ideas – recipes by Sue Radd
There are so many ways to get the balance right with vegetarian or vegan eating. Dietary or food variety is key! Try a tempeh burger and fresh salad on a sourdough bun drizzled with garlicky tahini sauce or noodles with ginger marinated tofu and Asian greens or red sauce with eggplant, red capsicum and currants on wholemeal spirali pasta. Or these:
Bruschetta topped with four bean summer salad
Chickpea curry with pumpkin and baby spinach on a bed of steamed brown rice
Tangy lentil soup with silverbeet and zucchini with wholegrain bread
Fresh beetroot, carrot and mint salad as an incredibly refreshing side dish
And here’s Sue in action demonstrating Greek Style Green Beans with Tomato
Where to get further information?
See a Registered or Accredited Practising Dietitian for tailored advice to your needs and life stage.
Thanks to Cheryl for raising the question of balance with vegan diets. I’m so thrilled to see Sue offering cooking classes as I too believe passionately in dietitians having strong culinary skills and passing on knowledge through hands on experiences. I often have the goal of trying a new recipe each week for a set period and it’s a great way to mix up your mealtime repertoire. So how about it? Why not give Sue’s recipes a try, even if you are just a part-time vegetarian or “flexitarian”. You may also like to join with the McCartney’s and adopt the Meat Free Monday idea – there are loads of inspiring recipes here too.
So over to you. Love to hear more tips from dedicated vegetarians. Or perhaps you have a signature recipe to share?