Nutritional Health For All

Eating Well on a Vegetarian Diet

How we choose to eat is influenced by a variety of factors: religious and cultural, moral and ethical, health and environmental. For some or all of these reasons, many people choose to follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets that are appropriately planned can be nutritionally balanced and suitable for all stages of life.

Types of vegetarian diets

When people think of a vegetarian diet, they automatically think of a diet that excludes meat, fish or poultry. However, some vegetarian diets are stricter than others:

  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy foods but exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs but excludes meat, fish or poultry from their diets.
  • Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid all other animal foods including dairy.
  • Vegans avoid all animal products and animal by-products e.g. honey, fur, wool or leather.

Living well on a vegetarian diet

  • No matter what your food preferences, the key to achieving a healthy diet is to enjoy as varied a diet as possible, as no single food group can provide all the nutrients your body needs.
  • The Irish Healthy Eating Guidelinesrecommend that foods be chosen, in varying amounts, from each shelf of the food pyramid. This is to ensure that people enjoy a diet that is nutritionally balanced to sustain good health.
  • With careful planning, vegetarians who only avoid meat products, can quite easily achieve a balanced diet containing all the nutrients a body needs to perform at its best: this happens when meat products are substituted for nutritious alternatives such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs. 
  • However, the stricter the vegetarian diet the more difficult it can be to get all your nutrients from diet alone.

Extra care is needed during pregnancy, breastfeeding, weaning or in childhood to make sure that all nutritional needs are being met. It is important to seek additional advice from your GP or dietitian to ensure your vegetarian diet is nutritionally balanced during these important stages of life.

Nutrients that require special attention

Protein

  • Protein plays a role in maintaining healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs. 
  • Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Some amino acids, called essential amino acids, cannot be made by the body and must be sourced from food.
  • Animal protein sources (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt,) are excellent sources of these essential amino acids. For vegetarians, special attention must be paid to getting protein from dietary sources other than meat. These include dairy foods*, eggs**, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, Quorn, soya and nuts. The greater the variety of these foods in your diet, the easier it is to get a blend of the essential amino acids that you need to stay healthy.

Iron

  • Iron is a crucial component of red blood cells that carries oxygen around our bodies to give us energy.
  • Special attention must be paid to this important nutrient if you are vegetarian or vegan since the very best source of this nutrient is red meat and other animal products.
  • Be sure to include alternative sources of iron in your diet: dried beans and peas, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green leafy vegetables and dried fruit are good options.
  • However, iron isn’t as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from meat sources. To help you absorb iron form these foods, have vitamin C-rich foods such as strawberries, citrus fruits (or juices), tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli at the same time.
  • Ask your GP or dietitian whether you would benefit from an iron supplement.

Calcium

  • Calcium is essential for the development of healthy bones and teeth.
  • Milk, yoghurt, and cheese are the richest sources of calcium.
  • If you avoid these foods, soya-based dairy foods, enriched with calcium are good alternatives.  Other, non-dairy sources of calcium include dark green vegetables (e.g. spinach), fortified white bread, nuts, peas, beans, lentils, tofu and dried fruit.
  • Ask your GP or dietitian whether you would benefit from a calcium supplement.

Vitamin D

  • Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium from the foods we eat.
  • Sunshine is the most important source of vitamin D as it is made by the action of sunlight on our skin. During winter months (October to March) many Irish people struggle to get enough Vitamin D.
  • Certain foods contain vitamin D: oily fish, eggs, dairy foods (especially fortified dairy foods), fortified margarines and breakfast cereals. If you avoid these foods, you may be at even greater risk of low vitamin D stores.
  • Other groups at risk include children and older adults, those who spend most of their time indoors and those who have dark skin. 
  • Talk to your GP or dietitian about whether you would benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin B12

  • Vitamin B12 is essential for brain function and a healthy nervous system.
  • The main foods that supply vitamin B12 are animal foods so vegans need to include alternative sources such as eggs, yeast extract, soya milks and yoghurts, textured vegetable protein and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Talk to your GP or dietitian about whether you would benefit from taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Omega 3 fatty acids

  • Omega 3 fatty acids are great for your heart health. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, kippers, herring, and fresh tuna are wonderful sources of this important nutrient. 
  • The Irish Healthy Eating Guidelines recommend that adults have two portions of fish each week.  Therefore, diets that exclude fish are generally low in omega 3 fats.
  • Although canola oil, walnuts, soy oil, ground flaxseeds and soy beans are also good sources those who don’t eat fish could consider taking an omega 3 supplement.
  • It is best to talk to your GP or dietitian about this.

Some healthy vegetarian meal ideas

Breakfast Lunch Dinner Snacks
Instant porridge with low fat milk*, nuts and dried fruit Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread with carrot and celery sticks Tofu & vegetable stir-fry with brown rice or tacos filled with beans & textures vegetable protein

Dried fruit

trail mix

popcorn

Low fat yoghurt layered with crunchy cereal or granola with blueberries and honey** Sliced tomato, pepper, onion, avocado stuffed in a whole-grain pitta Tacos or burritos filled with beans, textured vegetable protein or tofu Hummus and pitta wedges
  Vegetable burger or falafel with cheese*, mushrooms and tomato on a whole-grain bun Pizza with or without cheese* and topped with vegetables and tofu or meat substitute Smoothie made with low-fat milk*, frozen berries and a banana

* If vegan, choose soy-based, calcium-enriched dairy foods.

** Unsuitable for vegans

Updated by Niamh Donnelly MINDI, January 2016. Review date: January 2019.

© 2016 Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, INDI. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in its entirety provided the source is acknowledged. This information is not meant to replace advice from your medical doctor or individual counselling with dietitian.  It is intended for educational and informational purposes only.

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