What is a Vegetarian Diet?
In conjunction with Vegetarian Week (15th to 21st May 2017), I wanted to write a blog based around different sources of protein, iron and calcium for vegetarians and why it’s important that if you are following a vegetarian diet you make sure you are also getting vitamin B12 and your omega-3s.
Following a vegetarian diet is actually something of interest to me, as I’m trying to increase the amount of vegetarian meals I have and hopefully this blog may inspire you too – even if it’s just trying one meat free day a week. Sometimes this is referred to as a flexitarian diet, which is where people mainly eat vegetarian foods but will occasionally have meat (so not a complete vegetarian but in turn moving away from mainly a meat based diet).
So, first things first, there are actually different types of vegetarians:
- lacto-ovo-vegetarians (the most common) people who fall into this category and eat both dairy products and eggs
- lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs
- ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy products
- And finally, those who do not eat any products which are derived from animals (including eggs, dairy, and honey) are known as vegans (Vegetarian Society, 2016)
Within this blog, I’m going to try and give some ideas of foods which are relevant for all of these different types of vegetarianism. If you follow one of these, some of my ideas may not apply to you so bear with me as I’m trying to cover all in one article.
Of course, if you are just interested in trying out more vegetarian based meals then all of my ideas may work for you!
Our website is also full of delicious recipes – I’d recommend the Quinoa and Borlotti Bean Burgers, they’re amazing. You can find the recipe by clicking here.
I know that some people believe that meat is your best bet on upping your protein intake (especially if you’re trying to gain muscle or increase muscle mass) but you can also follow a vegetarian diet and still get enough protein in your diet.
Protein is essential for growth and repair and helping to maintain good health, playing a role for both structure and function within every cell in our body.
The recommended reference Nutrient Intake for protein is 0.75g per kg of body weight in adults (this varies for other stages in the life cycle) (British Nutrition Foundation, 2016). For example, if you weighed 65kg as an adult, you would need 48.75g of protein a day. This amount roughly equates to 2 palm-sized portions of tofu, nuts, or pulses a day.
To work out how much you need (if you are an adult) is your weight in kg x 0.75 = the recommended amount.
It has been found that most of us in the UK eat around 45-55% more protein than we need each day (BBC, 2017).
Our body cannot store a surplus of protein. So, consuming a diet that is high in excess protein consumption can actually have an impact on renal function, even reducing the mineral content in our tissue. Unless you are an athlete who needs to maintain or develop high muscle mass, consuming more than 1.5g/kg of protein per day may have detrimental effects.
We can break proteins into two categories: incomplete and complete proteins.
Proteins consist of things called amino acids (the building blocks to life). There are some amino acids which are essential (this means we must get them from our diet) as we are either unable to synthesise them or can’t make them at a fast-enough rate.
Complete proteins are those that contain all of these essential amino acids, such as most sources of animal protein.
Incomplete proteins are those that do not have one or more of the essential amino acids, such as most plant based protein.
If following a vegetarian diet, you can still get all the different amino acids by combining different sources of plant proteins by making them complementary (for example eating pulses and cereals).
- Eggs: these are seen as the perfect balance between the essential amino acids and unlike what was previously thought, they will not increase your cholesterol. Having two eggs will provide you with 12g of protein.
- Dairy products: this includes milk, cheeses and yoghurts. 100g of cottage cheese will provide you with 12g of protein; 250ml of milk provides 8g of protein; whilst 50g of Greek yoghurt contains 4.5g of protein. It is important to note that parmesan/ Parmigiano-Reggiano is not vegetarian as it’s made using calf rennet)
- Quinoa: this is a source of a complete protein (giving you all the amino acids) which can be eaten by all vegetarians. 250g or 75g (dry weight) of quinoa has around 11g of protein. The great thing about this protein is that it can be added into a variety of meals and eaten hot or cold.
- Soya: this includes products such as tofu, milks, yoghurts, edamame beans. These again, like quinoa, are a complete protein which can be eaten by all vegetarians. Tofu per 100g has 13g of protein; and 200g of edamame beans has 22g of protein.
- Pulses: this is your beans, lentils and peas. Black eyed peas and green peas contain around 5g of protein; 100g of cooked lentils or beans gives you 9g of protein.
- Vegetables: including broccoli, spinach, kale and peas contain some protein. 100g of broccoli contains 4g of protein.
- Wholegrains: bread, pasta, rice, oats, cereals. Wholegrains are higher in protein than refined grains. Brown rice per 75g in dried weight contains 7g of protein; 50g of dried oats has 7g of protein; and 75g of pasta has 10g of protein. Even a wholemeal pitta provides you with protein at around 6g per pitta.
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, pumpkin, sunflower all contain protein. 25g of pumpkin seeds, or peanuts, or peanut butter will provide you with 7g of protein; 25g of almonds is 6g of protein; and 25g of cashews is around 5g of protein.
- Hemp seeds: this actually does contain all of the essential amino acids but the levels of lysine (an essential amino acid) are too low to be fully considered complete. You can get 10g of protein from this in a 2 tablespoon serving.
- Chia seeds, are similar to hemp seeds in regards to not having enough lysine. 2 tablespoons of chia seeds can provide you with 4g of protein.
- Seitan: is made from gluten and known as wheat meat – it is still not a complete protein. It is low in the amino acid lysine (but you can get this from lentils, black beans, chickpeas, or kidney beans, tofu or quinoa).
There are 5 (or 4 if you avoid dairy) categories in which you should look to consume 2 or more, when following a vegetarian diet to make sure you are getting all the essential amino acids.
The five categories are:
- Dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
- Soya products
Examples are beans and brown rice; toast and peanut butter; and porridge topped with almonds, to name a few.
Supplements: you can also find vegetarian-friendly supplements, such as pea and hemp protein, however it is important to remember that these should be used to supplement your diet and shouldn’t be your only source.
If you want to read more about vegan sources of protein, we have another blog here.
Iron is another area in which people believe a vegetarian diet can be deficient. However, there are options which are vegetarian-friendly.
Iron is important in the making of haemoglobin which carries oxygen to the tissues, maintains a normal and healthy immune system and in producing myoglobin which is found within the muscles and is used to store oxygen.
Sources of iron include:
- Green leafy vegetables eg. broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and kale
- Pulses, eg. lentils, beans and even quinoa
- Nuts and seeds, eg. cashews, almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds
When eating any iron-rich foods, it’s important to try and also consume foods that are high in vitamin C as well (mainly fruits and vegetables), as vitamin C improves our body’s ability to absorb iron.
It is also important to note that our body absorbs less iron from plant based foods than from meat, however over time it has been indicated that the body can adjust (Bean, 2017).
Between the ages of 19-50 women need 14.8mg of iron per day. Men and women over the age of 50 require 8.7mg per day.
Although milk and dairy products are what we know as our main source of calcium, you can also get calcium from other products including:
- Tofu – 100g of tofu contains 510mg of calcium
- Leafy green vegetables (apart from spinach) – 100g of kale contains 130mg; 100g pak choi has 54mg; around 80g of broccoli has 56mg
- Nuts – 25g almonds contains 60mg
- Sesame seeds
- Fortified cereals
- Soya – 200ml of fortified soya or almond milk contains 240mg of calcium
It is seriously important to make sure that you are getting enough calcium in your diet. Those aged 19+ should be aiming to get 700mg per day (British Nutrition Foundation, 2005).
Vitamin B12 has made it onto this list because it is very easy for those who are excluding all animal products to not get enough of this vitamin.
B12 is needed to allow for normal functioning of our brain and nervous system. It also is involved in the formation of red blood cells.
If as a vegetarian, you consume eggs or dairy you can obtain vitamin B12 from these sources, or through fortified cereals, fortified yeast extracts, or soya milks and yoghurts.
If you are a vegan and you do not consume fortified B12 products, supplementation should be considered (The Vegan Society, 2017).
Omega 3 is essential, which means we need to get it from our diet. Omega 3 helps with the functioning of our brain, helping regulate our hormones and our immune system.
I’m currently writing another blog on omega 3, so going to keep it short here!
There are three main types of omega 3s and only one of them is obtained from plant sources (alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)). In the body this is converted to the other two omega-3 sources (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)), which can be obtained from oily fish. However, the process in which they are converted is not very efficient – so it is possible for vegetarians to become deficient in EPA and DHA.
It is recommended that vegetarians try and get 2-3g of ALA per day to support health. This can be obtained from flaxseed oil (flaxseeds contain something that can have an effect on our hormone balance and should be restricted during pregnancy).
- 1 tablespoon of flaxseed contains 7.2g of ALA
- 1 tablespoon of chia seeds has 3g of ALA
- 25g of walnuts has 2.5g of ALA
- 25g of pumpkin seeds has 2.1g of ALA
- 1 tablespoon of hemp oil contains 2.1g of ALA.
If you don’t regularly eat some of these, it may be worth looking at supplementation (Vegetarian Society, 2017).
Known as the sunshine vitamin, it plays a vital role in a number of functions, including (but not exclusively) supporting our immune system, cardiovascular health and helping to absorb calcium.
Apart from the synthesis from sunlight, vitamin D can be found in eggs, mushrooms exposed to sunlight, and fortified cereals and milks.
Between September to March, supplementation of vitamin D is an option, especially those who do not eat the foods mentioned above and during periods where sun exposure is limited.
You only need a 10mcg supplementation a day. We have a more in depth blog about vitamin D here.
Hopefully you have found this interesting. It is important if you are following a vegetarian diet (this is the same with any specific diet) that you make sure that you are getting a varied diet, so that you are able to get all the nutrients which are required to maintain health.
Throughout the lifecycle, we have different requirements, so that of children, pregnant and lactating women, and those over 50 years may have different requirements to the ones stated above. If you are interested, you can check out the difference In nutrition requirements here.
I think the main thing to take home is just remembering that variation is key. Looking at increasing the amount of vegetarian meals you eat is a great way of increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. It has also been said that if you consume a correctly planned vegetarian diet it can be both healthy and nutritious and even provide health benefits.
BBC. (2017). Should you worry about how much protein you eat?. Available here.
Bean, A. (2017). The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook. London, Bloomsbury Sport.
British Nutrition Foundation. (2005). Dietary Calcium and Health. Available here.
British Nutrition Foundation. (2016). Protein. Available here.
The Vegan Society. (2017). What every vegan should know about vitamin B12. Available here.
Vegetarian Society. (2016). What is a vegetarian?. Available here.
Vegetarian Society. (2017). Fats, Omegas and Cholesterol. Available here.
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