Have you ever considered reducing your meat intake but wondered “will I miss out on some important nutrients?” While I am not vegetarian, I do eat a large number of plant based food each day and love concepts like Meat Free Monday that stretch me to try new vego options. But what about if you choose to be vegetarian or vegan? With so many myths circulating we decided to ask two experts dietitians for the scoop.
Angela and Michelle both work as senior dietitians at Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing. Angela has been a lifelong vegetarian, and has raised her twin sons on a vegetarian diet—now 6’4” athletic young men. Angela has worked in clinical nutrition most of her career and is now enjoying her advocacy role at Sanitarium. Michelle works with Sanitarium’s brands to ensure nutrition credibility shines through and believes there’s always room to include more whole plant foods in our diets. Angela and Michelle both worked on the recent Medical Journal of Australia supplement :Is a Vegetarian Diet Adequate—Concepts and Controversies in Plant-based Nutrition” the basis of this post.
More and more people are moving towards plant-based vegetarian diets, not just for health reasons but also for ethical and environmental concerns. We care about our health as well as the health of the planet, and the welfare of animals. The great news is that a varied and balanced plant-based diet will provide all the nutrients needed for good health. And as a bonus, research indicates you’ll reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes and you’ll live a longer life!
Myth #1: Meat is the best source of protein
Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chick peas, etc), soy products, grains, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein as well as fibre, minerals and phytonutrients. These plant foods are not loaded with saturated fat or cholesterol and you don’t have to look for “lean cuts” of legumes, as they are naturally low in fat and cholesterol free. Vegetarians have no problem getting enough protein, and you do not need to consciously combine different plant proteins. That’s old advice. Your body has a pool of amino acid proteins and with regular, varied plant protein intake you can easily get what your body needs.
Myth #2: Vegetarians are more likely to be iron deficient
Vegetarians who eat a variety of plant foods are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. A diet rich in legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, wholegrains (including iron fortified cereals) and green leafy vegetables provides enough iron to maintain iron stores. Vegetarians do tend to have less stored iron, but this may contribute to a vegetarian’s reduced risk of some chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Research is also currently looking at the possible association between haem iron (from meat) and various chronic diseases. Vegetarians with lower iron stores or increased needs (during pregnancy) will tend to absorb more iron. Absorption of non-haem iron from plant foods is enhanced by eating vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables along with the iron-rich plant foods.
Myth #3: Zinc is not absorbed from plant foods
Well planned vegetarian diets can provide adequate amounts of zinc and studies show that vegetarians are at no greater risk of deficiency than non-vegetarians. Good sources of zinc include wholegrains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified cereal products and dairy products (for lacto-vegetarians). Phytates (found in unrefined plant foods) can form a complex and stop zinc from being absorbed, but common cooking and processing methods can break down the phytate, allowing the zinc to be absorbed. For example, soaking legumes and then cooking them will reduce the levels of phytates and improve zinc absorption.
Myth #4: Vitamin B12 is found in plant foods
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal foods, with only small amounts found in mushrooms. So you need to eat vitamin B12 fortified foods (ie, fortified soy beverages) or take a B12 supplement. Even though dairy products and eggs are a source of B12 for lacto-ovo-vegetarians, they still need to get their B12 levels checked regularly to ensure levels are adequate. It is particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding vegetarian and especially vegan women to make sure vitamin B12 intake is adequate, otherwise baby will develop a B12 deficiency. If taking a B12 supplement, it is best to take a small, frequent daily dose (Recommended Daily Intake), rather than large doses infrequently. In Australia there are only a limited number of foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 (ie, most soy beverages, vegetarian style sausages and meat analogues).
Myth #5: Fish is the only source of omega 3s
Omega 3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is an essential fatty acid found in plant foods such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans and the oils from these foods. Just 1Tbsp of chia seeds or flaxseeds, or a handful of walnuts provides more than the ALA requirements for men and women. Reducing your intake of omega-6 oils and margarines and increasing your ALA intake will make the conversion process more efficient. A vegan EPA and DHA supplement derived from microalgae is now available to consumers but without the fishy ingredient.
Myth#6: Dairy products are the only source of calcium
Fortunately, dairy products are not the only source of calcium in the diet, as not everyone eats dairy or can tolerate lactose. In Australia we have plant-based milks with calcium added (ie, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, etc), but we also have a wide variety of plant foods which contain calcium. Asian greens, broccoli, kale, sesame seeds and tahini (unhulled), almonds and calcium set tofu are some good sources of calcium. Remember to get adequate vitamin D with safe sun exposure (or supplements) to ensure calcium is absorbed into your bones.
Thanks Angela and Michelle. I love your passion for vegetarian eating and work to publish the science. I also love the recipes the team at Sanitarium develops and think you’re sample single-day meal plans are an excellent guide. How about you lovely readers? Are you vegetarian? Or do you dabble on a Monday? What’s your favourite delish dish? We’d love your links below.