By Hannah Sherwood
Today marks the beginning of National Vegetarian Week – will you be setting aside your carnivorous ways and going cold turkey for seven days? It may sound like a challenge, but meat-free eating has never been so accessible – or delicious. At this time of year, there’s an array of fresh fruit and veg at their seasonal best, and a trip to your local supermarket will reveal a great selection of protein-rich vegetarian options. But if you’re worried going meat-free will mean you're depriving yourself of vital nutrients, HFG nutrition consultant Juliette Kellow has this advice…
Is a vegetarian diet healthier?
There’s no definitive answer to this. Studies show vegetarians have lower mortality rates, particularly from heart disease, compared with the general population. However, this difference disappears when vegetarians are compared with meat eaters who follow a healthy lifestyle – so it’s hard to conclude whether it’s a veggie diet that makes people healthier, or other lifestyle habits, such as not smoking or being active.
The best way to ensure a healthy diet is to apply the healthy eating principles – regardless of whether you do or don’t eat meat: have five portions of fruit and veg a day, base meals on fibre-rich starchy foods, choose low-fat dairy products, eat two portions of protein-rich foods each day, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds or eggs, and limit fatty, sugary and salty foods.
Some meat provides certain nutrients, so if you do choose a vegetarian diet make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need from other food sources:
CALCIUM, SELENIUM AND ZINC
It’s easy to get enough calcium if you include low-fat dairy products in your diet. Pulses, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, fortified soya products, bread and green leafy veg also contain some calcium, but it’s in a form that’s harder for the body to absorb. Eating nuts and seeds will give you the antioxidant selenium, needed for a healthy immune system, and for zinc (also immune-boosting) eat eggs, nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals and pulses. If you cut out all animal foods, it can be difficult to get the vitamin B12 needed for a healthy nervous system, so you may want to take a supplement.
Going meat-free can reduce your protein intake, so it’s important to know the foods to eat to keep your levels up. Don’t be tempted to rely solely on cheese for this nutrient, though, as many varieties are also high in fat, saturates and salt. If you include dairy products and/or eggs in your diet, you’re likely to be getting plenty of protein. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, quinoa and meat alternatives, such as Quorn, are also good sources. Even foods such as bread, cereals, pasta, couscous and rice contain some protein.
According to recent findings, low iron intake is a concern for many women in the UK. A deficiency can lead to anaemia, with symptoms including extreme fatigue, poor concentration, shortness of breath and an increased risk of infection. Red meat is one of the main sources of iron, but other good sources include eggs, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts, seeds and green leafy veg. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plant foods, so eat them with citrus fruit, berries, kiwi fruit or peppers.
National Vegetarian Week runs from 19–25 May. To find out more, visit nationalvegetarianweek.org