Published Oct 28, 2020
In today’s gastronomic world, we can’t help being aware of meals that are different from the traditional ‘meat and two veg’ of yesteryear. When we say different, we mean lots of things.
It could mean eating a meat other than chicken, beef, lamb or pork (such as rabbit, goose, venison or even roadkill, which is growing in popularity). Or it could mean eating a different cut of meat to a leg of lamb, filet steak or pork loin – ‘nose to tail’ eating is also becoming a trend.
It can also mean eating a diet where animal products are completely eliminated, or at least minimised. A vegetarian diet, where followers eat no meat or fish, has been around forever. But a relative newcomer is veganism (at least in popularity – it has been quietly doing its thing for decades). Someone following a vegan diet avoids all meat, fish, dairy, eggs and even honey.
So if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or you’re considering becoming one, how do you make sure you’re getting all the right nutrients? We’ve spoken before about vegan diets, but here’s a more in depth look at some specific nutrients to consider when you’re reducing or eliminating animal products.
The first thing many people worry about is protein, especially on a vegan diet that eliminates meat, eggs and dairy – all good sources of protein.
But vegetarians and vegans have lots of protein sources at their disposal. Vegetarians can get their protein from eggs and dairy products. Nuts, seeds, beans, chickpeas, pulses and grains are all rich plant based protein sources that area all suitable for vegans (and anyone else for that matter!).
Wholegrains such as quinoa and buckwheat are surprisingly high in protein. Soya products including tofu, soya mince and other meat substitutes and edamame beans are also great protein sources.
Base each veggie or vegan meal on approximately one quarter protein, one quarter wholegrains and one half veggies or fruit. Wholemeal toast with baked beans and a side salad is perfectly protein balanced. As is a soya mince and chopped veggie bolognaise with wholewheat spaghetti. If you have time, slow cook a cauliflower and chickpea curry and serve it with brown rice for a perfectly balanced meal that’s full of protein.
The Vegan Society have a helpful Vegan Plate guide full of more tips.
Possibly one of the most successful, and incorrect, advertising campaigns last century was that of the dairy industry. How engrained it was in all of us, that the only way to get calcium in our diet was to drink cow’s milk. But how oh-so wrong! We don’t need milk for strong bones.
If you’re vegetarian, then you’ll probably still consume milk, cheese and yogurt. But vegans will need a different calcium source.
Calcium is abundant in veggie and vegan foods – green leafy veg is practically a calcium party! Let’s take broccoli for example. The humble green floret is packed with bone-strengthening calcium. Other good calcium sources are tofu, sesame seeds and dried fruits.
The only nutrient that’s near on impossible to get from plants is vitamin B12. B12 is made by bacteria in the guts of animals and is abundant in red meat. The Vegan Society and the NHS recommend taking a B12 supplement, as well as consuming foods fortified with B12 such as fortified breakfast cereals and soya milk.
Everyone’s favourite opinion divider, Marmite, is also fortified with vitamin B12.
Another nutrient people are concerned about when not eating meat or no/little dairy is iron. But again, with careful planning, there’s no need to lack in this vital nutrient.
Good veggie and vegan sources of iron include dried fruits, nuts, pulses, wholemeal bread and dark green leafy veg such as broccoli (what a hero!) and spring greens. As long as you’re eating a variety of green vegetables, beans and wholegrains every day, you’ll be meeting your iron needs.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Found abundantly in fish, omega 3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, needed for heart and brain health. Again, it’s still possible to get enough omega 3, by eating walnuts, tofu and flaxseed.
If you’d like to take an omega 3 supplement, then look for marine sourced omega 3. These are made using omega 3 from algae, which is where the fish get it from in the first place – you’ll just be cutting out the middle seafood!
A little spoken about nutrient, iodine is needed in the tiniest amounts weekly and is essential for good thyroid health. Its found naturally in fish, but seaweed is also a good source.
Some vegetables will contain iodine if they’re grown near the coastline (iodine from salt in the sea seeps into the ground and is taken up by plants). But as it’s tricky to know where your veg is grown, try some seaweed snacks once or twice a week or take a weekly supplement.
Some salt, particularly that from the US is iodised, which means it’s been fortified with iodine.
A Healthy vegetarian or vegan diet
A carefully balanced veggie or vegan diet is full of all the vital nutrients you need. And since it’s heavily reliant on vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, its naturally lower in calories (just limit the vegan junk food that’s now everywhere), saturated fat and cholesterol.
So fill your plate, don’t forget the broccoli, and enjoy!
Written by Bev Walton
Food Writer and Nutritionist, dietician
A chef of over 35 years with experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for both magazines, websites and ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I have a degree in nutrition and dietetics and work with restaurants and organisations within the healthcare profession. I am also able to take high quality photographs of recipes created. No writing task is too great, and whilst I specialise in the above, I am able to write about any topic you throw at me. Member of the Guild of food writers.