Being vegetarian is one way to help save our planet. So here are my top ten tips if you’re thinking of going veggie.
One: The basics.Vegetarians avoid meat, fish, seafood, poultry, gelatine (used in sweets and jellies), animal rennet used in some cheeses including parmesan, Gorgonzola and Grana Padano and insects. OK that last one may seem odd. I know you’re not all planning to do a stint in the jungle honing your survival skills but cochineal or carmine is a food colouring made from insects found in some confectionery and biscuits. On food labels it may be listed by name or as E120.
Two: Getting enough iron will require some planning. There is less iron in vegetable foods and it is more difficult for us to absorb. You can buy textured vegetable protein (a soya based meat substitute) with added iron. Check out these links
Some other useful vegetarian sources of iron are shown in the list below.
Weetabix (2 biscuits) (Check cereals are fortified with iron) = 5mg
Tinned blackcurrants (80g) 4mg
Tempeh (100g) = 3.5 mg
Amaranth (150g) = 3mg
Tofu (75g steamed) 2.5mg
Dried apricots/prunes (4 ready to eat) 2.5 mg
Curly kale (130g) 2.6mg
Quinoa (about 3tbsp cooked) 2 mg
Steamed swiss chard (90g) 2mg
Steamed spinach (60g) = 1mg
Brown rice (175g) = 1mg
Cashews (about 10) 1mg
Rolled oats cooked as medium bowl porridge (1mg)
Boiled egg (1 large) 1mg
Wholemeal bread with iron added (1 slice) 1mg
Broccoli (85g) 0.5mg
Marmite (thickly spread on 2 slices bread/toast) 0.5 mg
Almonds (20) 0.5 mg
Wheatgerm ( 1 tbsp) 0.5 mg
Tahini (1 tsp) 0.5mg]
To maximise your absorption make sure you have plenty of foods containing vitamin C at the same time as foods that contain iron. For example include citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, kiwi fruit, pawpaw and melons, as well as green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers. Phytic acid (high in wholegrains and legumes) and tannins (found in tea and coffee), reduce iron absorption. For this reason you should avoid consuming tea and coffee with meals. Don’t exclude wholegrains though as these are important for your general health. If you are concerned that you don’t like enough vegetarian foods that are high in iron then consider a supplement. It’s easier to prevent anaemia than to treat it because treatment requires high doses of iron that often cause side effects including abdominal pain, wind and diarrhea.
Three: Getting enough Vitamin B12 is more difficult for those who avoid dairy. Some vegetarians also avoid dairy foods owing to concerns about hormone and antibiotic use. These things are much less of an issue in the UK but it’s a personal choice. Vitamin B12 is needed to form blood cells and DNA. Left untreated deficiency can lead to tiredness, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, constipation, diarrhoea and wind, numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, vision loss, depression, memory loss and behavioural changes. Good vegetarian sources include milk and milk products. Vegan sources include fortified cereals and fortified soya products but make sure they are not varieties with lots of added sugar. Yeast extracts are also a good source although they are very salty and that’s not great for your blood pressure.
Four: Get the best omega 3 fats. We know that people from countries where their diet is rich in omega 3 fats have a lower risk of heart disease than we do in the UK and that omega 3 fats help reduce inflammation in the body. There is also some evidence, albeit weaker, that omega 3 may help with memory and the prevention and treatment of depression so it is an important nutrient. ALA or (alpha-linolenic acid) is a type of omega 3 fat found in vegetable oils, seeds such as chia seeds and linseed (flaxseed), nuts such as walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts and green leafy vegetables. It cannot be made in the body and must be obtained from the diet. However there is less evidence that ALA is protective in relation to heart disease than there is for the omega 3 fats found in oily fish. These “fishy” omega 3’s are called EPA (eicosapentanoic acid ) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid.) Although our bodies can make EPA and DHA from ALA, the conversion rate is slow and only small amounts of EPA and DHA are made and so it is recommended that we include sources of EPA and DHA in our diet. So if you’re vegan or vegetarian you may wish to consider taking a supplement containing EPA and DHA obtained from plant sources such as seaweed and algae.
Five: It’s important to think about Iodine. This is needed for thyroid hormones to work properly. Thyroid hormones affect growth in children and the speed you burn calories. Milk, milk products, eggs and seaweed are good sources of iodine for vegetarians. Kelp is a type of seaweed used in supplements. It contains very high levels of iodine, which should be avoided in pregnancy as they may harm the growing baby.
Six: You will probably need a Vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and teeth, good muscle function and for a strong immune system. Most of us struggle to get enough from our diets whether we are vegetarian or not. As we don’t get much sunlight in the UK we will got be making enough vitamin D under our skins either. Egg yolk, soya milk, cereals, fortified margarines and light cultivated mushrooms will provide some vitamin D but it’s very unlikely to be enough so I recommend a 10 ug supplement. Some vitamin D3 (colecalciferol) in supplements is derived from the lanolin in sheep wool. However you can also buy lichen based vitamin D3 supplements. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is derived from yeast and is therefore suitable for vegetarians and vegans, provided it is not encapsulated in animal gelatin. Vitamin D3 is preferred for the treatment of existing deficiency.
Seven Zinc is important for immunity and wound healing. Although meat and fish are the best sources vegetarians should have no difficulty getting enough from eggs, fortified breakfast cereal, cow’s mils, hummus, nuts seeds, peas and beans, bread, cheese and potatoes.
Eight: Think about protein quality. Vegetarians should have little difficulty getting enough high quality protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids that we need for growth and the renewal and repair of cells and tissues. 9 of these are described as essential because our bodies cannot make them from other amino acids. This means that we must get them from the diet. There are more animal foods than plant foods that contain all the essential amino acids in the proportions that we need for health. These are often described as high quality protein foods. Meat, fish, eggs, milk and soya are “high quality” protein foods. You should also have a variety of pulses (beans, lentils and peas), cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, millet), pseudograins (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat), nuts and seeds. You do need to plan and avoid having the same thing too often. Pasta and tomato sauce most days will not give you the protein you need.
Nine: Know your cheesy facts. If you are inviting a veggie friend round for a meal remember that Rennet is an enzyme used to set cheese and some cheeses contain animal rennet whereas others contain vegetable rennet. As rennet is a processing ingredient UK law says that it does not have to be declared on food labels. Look for a ‘suitable for vegetarians’ or the ‘V’ label to be sure a product is veggie-friendly. Paneer, ricotta, and cottage cheese are always suitable for vegetarians.
Ten: Don’t assume a veggie diet is automatically better for maintaining a healthy weight or reducing risks of disease. A vegetarian diet can be high in fat and salt but this can be easily managed with good awareness and planning. To keep your fat intake down don’t rely too much on things like cheese, cream, full fat coconut milk or anything cooked in large amounts of fat or oil. Use a mister to spray oil onto the pan. To keep salt down don’t flavour your food with lots of soya sauce, vegetarian stock or salt. Get creative with herbs and spices instead. For a food to be low in salt it needs to contain 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium or less/100g.) If you are looking at recipes that quote salt or sodium per serving think about how much of your daily salt allowance is in the serving. Adults and children over 11 should not have more than 6 g salt or 2.5g sodium per day limits for children are even lower. You will notice that a lot of vegetarian foods are very high in salt.
If you are interested in sustainability but don’t want to go fully veggie try eating veggie meals for national vegetarian week and then use what you learn from the experience to have at least one veggie day every week.
The vegetarian society and the Healthy Food Guide have some great recipes to try. Check out the links below