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8 Nutritional Risks On A Vegetarian Diet To Look Out For

woman dressed in white holding a bowl of green pak choi

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet limits or avoids foods from animals. Here are some reasons why someone chooses a vegetarian diet:

  • Health-based, for example, weight loss, improving cholesterol

  • Personal beliefs and preferences

  • Ethics relating to animals

  • Culture tradition or religious beliefs

  • Environmental

  • Economic

Vegetarianism can be further categorised by the following:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetariansim: no meat, poultry or seafood but includes eggs and dairy

  • Ovo-vegetarianism: avoids all animal foods (including dairy) except eggs

  • Lacto-vegetarianism: excludes eggs, meat, poultry and seafood but eats dairy

  • Pesco-vegetarianism: no meat or poultry but includes seafood, dairy and eggs

  • Veganism: no animal products including eggs, honey, and dairy

  • Semi-vegetarianism (or flexitarians): includes some meat, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy

  • Ento-veganism: eats edible insects for environmental and nutritional reasons but follows a vegan diet overall

two women holding shopping baskets with vegetables

How can I ensure my vegetarian diet is healthy?

Vegetarianism can be healthy and delicious as its foundation is predominately on beans, whole grains, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruit.

If you choose a diet based on whole foods, as with any chosen dietary preferences, it can give you all the essential nutrients needed for good, overall health.

Eating less animal-based foods may help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, improve blood pressure, improve blood glucose in type 2 diabetes, and the risk of developing some cancers as well as assist in weight loss.

Are there any nutritional risks that I should be aware of?

Following a vegetarian diet means you need to know which nutrients to focus on more to make sure your choices are balanced and wholesome:

  • Protein: Always include at least one, palm-sized serving of protein-rich foods such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya products, eggs and dairy products (if you can eat the latter two). Meat substitutes (for example, Beyond Meat, Quorn, Vivera, Tofoo) are good sources of protein but read the food label to check the salt and fat content.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: If you're not eating fish, ensure that you consume omega-3 fats which are important for health. Essential fats in non-animal foods such as vegetable oils, chia seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds (and flaxseed oil), soybean products, green leafy vegetables, and especially walnuts can be converted by the body.

    • The highest source of omega-3 fats are in oily fish (think mackerel, salmon, sardines, pilchards, trout, whitebait, kipper, herring, and fresh tuna (not tinned tuna)). Omega-3 fortified products can also be useful such as eggs, spreads, milk, yoghurt, and dairy-free products. In the UK, there are currently no recommendations for the use of omega-3 supplements due to the lack of robust evidence.

    • Always speak to your GP if you think you could be at risk of low omega-3 fats intake. Rather than cod liver or fish liver oil, choose an omega-3 supplement that contains 450mg of EPA and DHA per daily adult dose. Ensure not to have more than 1.5mg of vitamin A (1500ug) daily from supplements and food as a high dose of vitamin A is toxic [1]. For a plant-based option, try algae-based supplements which you can find in most pharmacies and in some supermarkets.

  • Vitamin B12: This is only found in animal foods, so you need to get this from fortified foods or as a supplement if you are avoiding all animal foods (always speak to your doctor before taking supplements).

    • Breakfast cereals, soya yoghurts, plant-based dairy alternatives, and yeast extracts are the only reliable sources of vitamin B12.

    • Supplementation greater than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 1.5 micrograms is adequate as absorption and personal need vary a lot [2].

    • The Vegan Society suggests 1) eating fortified foods twice a day (3 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day or 2) taking a vitamin B12 supplement to ensure 10 micrograms daily or a minimum of 2000 micrograms weekly.

  • Vitamin D: Our body makes vitamin D from your skin’s exposure to the sun. Oily fish and some fortified foods contain vitamin D but in the winter months in the UK, as a population, vegetarian diet or not, we should all consider taking a supplement (from October to March [3]) – always speak to your GP about taking the correct dose. Adults should not exceed 10 micrograms a day [4].

  • Calcium: If you are not eating dairy foods that are rich in calcium, ensure to include fortified foods, nuts, leafy green vegetables, red kidney beans, soya products, and sesame seeds. Adults require 700mg a day [5].

  • Iron: Animal foods contain a form of iron that is more easily absorbed compared to plant foods containing iron. You can still get iron from beans, seeds, lentils, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, peas, and nuts. A top tip to increase iron absorption is to eat vegetables/fruit with it as they are rich in vitamin C. Plus, avoid drinking caffeine (fizzy drinks, tea, or coffee) with a meal as this blocks the absorption of iron – instead, wait 1 hour to enjoy the drink.

  • Zinc: Like iron, the absorption of zinc is lower in non-animal foods. Alongside eggs and milk, nuts, seeds, beans, mushrooms, and some fortified breakfast cereals.

  • Iodine: If you exclude dairy products and seafood, you might be at risk of iodine deficiency [6]. You may wish to include seaweed or iodine-fortified foods, but an excess of iodine is also unhealthy. There are currently no official UK recommendations for adults so always speak to your doctor before starting (any) supplements.

In summary, vegetarian diets can be equally nutritious and balanced as animal-based diets. You just need to ensure that you carefully plan your meals to include all the essential nutrients (especially vitamin B12 and calcium).

Are you worried about whether your vegetarian diet is balanced? Are you confused about portion sizes? Are you struggling with your weight and want to kick start your health journey? Book your free 15 minute discovery call with Mei to find out how she can help!

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