A balanced vegetarian diet is not as hard as it may seem. In fact, many of the same principles apply to vegetarians as everyone else. However, there are few things to remember as a vegetarian to ensure a well-balanced healthy diet. We asked Nicky Duffell, registered nutritional therapist and coach from Nicky for Life, to tell us her top tips to stay well and healthy as a vegetarian.
1. Get the right protein
In general, most people get enough protein in their daily diet. One important thing that vegetarians need to consider though is that they eat enough protein sources everyday – these only come from food because our bodies cannot make them. A complete protein has all 9 essential amino acids needed for vital bodily functions. Some vegetarian protein sources don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, so you need a good variety of protein sources to get them all in your diet.
Try combining different proteins at each meal to get a good variety of amino acids, like sprinkling some seeds in with your bean stew or adding nuts to your quinoa salad.
Here are some protein sources you can try:
- Nuts and seeds sprinkled on vegetables or added smoothies
- Nut butters such as almond, hazelnut and cashew nut butter
- Beans and pulses eaten together
- Dairy such as milk, yoghurt and cheese
Quinoa, eggs and dairy are a complete protein and have all 9 amino acids.
2. Are you getting enough vitamin B12 and Iron?
Vegetarians can be at a higher risk of vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies because vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products naturally and iron is generally higher in meat. If you are eating a varied diet full of fruit and vegetables you are more likely to meet all of your nutritional needs.
However, vitamin B12 is particularly difficult for vegetarians. Some food sources are fortified with vitamin B12 (such as cereals, plant milks and some soy products) but they’re not always the healthy option. Eggs and cheese are the best sources. If you don’t think you’re getting enough B12 take a supplement.
You can get more iron in your diet with these foods:
- Beans and pulses – lentils are particularly good
- Pumpkin seeds
- Blackstrap molasses
- Dried figs
- Dried apricots
3. Load your plate with vegetables
Vegetarians are way ahead on this one! Most vegetarian meals are based around vegetables, but can be a slippery slope towards an easy carbohydrate filled meal lacking nutritional value. You want to aim for 10 portions of vegetables a day for great health. At each meal your plate should be half filled with lovely colourful veggies. I always say make vegetables the main event of any meal.
4. Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are vital for our bodies to function well. My philosophy is food first. Eat a good, balanced diet full of nutrients and then if you need to, think about supplementing. It’s harder these days to get everything we need from food, so a good quality supplement can help boost your intake. I would always recommend seeing a registered nutritional therapist to advise on supplementation.
5. Get your essential fats
Essential fats are just that, essential! Our body cannot make them so we can only get them from our food. Essential fats are not only vital for every cell in our body but are needed for a whole host of important functions. If you shy away from eating fat I’m here to tell you that it’s good for you. You absolutely need the right kind of fat in your diet. It’s the omega 3 and omega 6 family of fats that are essential. Top up your diet with these essential fats.
Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil (also know as linseeds)
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
Sources of omega 6 fatty acids include:
- Nuts and seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flax.
If you’re a pescetarian fish is by far the best source of essential fats, such as wild salmon, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna. If you only eat vegetable sources of these essential fats you’re relying on the body to convert into the form your body needs, whereas oily fish gives you what you need directly.
So eat a varied diet, full of whole foods, and most importantly, enjoy your food! Fill your body with everything it needs and eat a little of what you fancy every now and then.
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