Different nutrients from the meat group are needed to meet bodily requirements to be healthy. Consuming only plant food puts vegetarians at higher risk of suffering certain nutrient deficiency. However, understanding what nutrients your diet might be lacking may help you make changes to prevent possible nutrient deficiency.
There are different types of vegetarians. Vegans being the most extreme, are vegetarians who do not eat food products of any animal origins, such as dairy foods, eggs, and seafood. Vegans also do not use any material off animals, such as accessories containing leather or feather. Ovo-lacto vegetarians are vegetarians who also eat eggs and dairy foods in addition to plant foods. The type of vegetarianism determines which nutrients are at risk of being deficient in such vegetarian’s diet.
Vegetarians’ diet can be low in iron, zinc, vitamin B12, iodine, and possibly calcium (if you do not eat dairy foods) and vitamin D (if you do not eat eggs). Eating a wide variety of vegetarian foods, and making a few changes to your diet and life style can minimize your risk of being deficient in the abovementioned. Otherwise the easiest way is taking supplements, but why pop a pill when you can enjoy a lot of different foods?
- is an essential component of haemoglobin in red blood cells, transporting oxygen in the blood to all parts of the body. Iron deficiency can cause anaemia. Iron from plant sources is poorly absorbed; it is only about 1-8% that can be absorbed, compared to 22% that can be absorbed from animal source. Therefore, foods high in iron should be eaten on a daily basis; these include dried fruits, dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach), seeds and pulses (e.g. lentils and soy beans). A good intake of vitamin C at meal time can enhance the absorption of iron.
- is very important for the immune system. Vegetarian food is not a rich source of zinc, however regular intake of food containing relatively more zinc can help to meet requirement. These include sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholegrain products, green vegetables and lentils.
- is needed for the formation of red blood cells and the maintenance of a healthy nervous system. Vitamin B12 however is not naturally present in almost all plant foods, therefore vegetarians, especially vegans likely to be B12 deficient. To minimize the risk, vegetarians need to include the following food in their diet regularly: food containing yeast extracts, such as vegemite and marmite, dairy food, eggs, and B12 fortified breakfast cereals.
A well-balanced vegetarian diet can offer a huge amount of health benefits. Many clinical studies have proved that vegetarians are less likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, diet-related diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, because vegetarian diets are low in saturated fat and high in fiber.
If you are worried about any possible nutrient deficiency while on a vegetarian diet, a dietitian can assess your nutritional intake versus your requirements and give you practical tips to improve your diet.