The Vegetarian Life: Are You Doing It Right?
Meat-eating can be quite a divisive subject when it comes to healthy living. It’s an easy way to get protein and certain nutrients into your diet, but we all know about the probable links between red meat and cancer, and the ethics and environment impact of meat mean that it’s not impossible that we will stop eating meat altogether in the not too distant future.
So what about vegetarianism? We asked personal trainer and nutrition expert Nikki Withers to share her experiences of being a vegetarian with a physically active lifestyle.
Nikki Withers, Personal Trainer
“Don’t you miss a bacon sandwich?” – this is the question I get asked the most when I tell people I have decided to become a vegetarian (along with “why?”). In fact, I’ve become a pescatarian. I still eat fish, dairy and eggs.
Since the #meatfreemonday hashtag surfaced on social media, I’ve noticed people questioning their meat-based meal choices, opting for vegetarian alternatives such as tofu, Quorn and pulses.
Living as a vegetarian has been relatively easy for me (although weirdly, I really miss chorizo!). But I still need to ensure I am getting all the nutrients for a healthy, balanced diet. This isn’t just the case for vegetarians – many people who eat meat miss out on essential nutrients. But a diet that includes meat has several benefits, for example iron from meat sources is better absorbed by our bodies than it is from plant foods. Meat is also a major source of protein, which is essential for healthy skin, hair, bones and muscles.
For convenience, many vegetarians rely on processed foods which are often high in calories, sugar, fat and salts. If your diet is low in calcium-rich foods, as well as fruit, vegetables and whole grains you may be missing out on essential nutrients.
If you are a vegetarian, or are considering a vegetarian lifestyle, make sure that your diet includes plenty of the following:
We all need calcium for strong, healthy bones and teeth. Milk and dairy foods are high in calcium, but some vegetarians will need to obtain their calcium from other sources. Calcium-fortified foods such as cereals and milks are one option. Calcium can also be found in certain leafy green veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes and tofu.
Protein is essential for healthy skin, hair, bones and muscles. Many vegetarians worry they won’t get enough protein in their diet, but if you eat a variety of protein-rich foods such as soy products or legumes, lentils, wholegrains, nuts and seeds you should be able to fulfil your protein needs.
Dietary iron, which is important for red blood cells, can be found in lentils, dark leafy green vegetables, whole grains and dried fruits, as well as red meat. However, iron from plant-based sources is harder for the body to absorb than from meat. For this reason, vegetarians are recommended to eat double the amount of iron recommended for meat eaters. Foods high in vitamin C can help iron absorption, so try and eat citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli or strawberries at a similar time to iron-rich foods.
This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal products, and so many vegans struggle to get enough of it. Essential for red blood cell production, many people deficient in vitamin B-12 go unnoticed before problems occur. Vegans should make sure they include foods fortified in vitamin B-12 or take a supplement.
Eating a diet containing mostly fresh, unprocessed foods should provide you with all the nutrients your body needs. If you are worried about your diet or need any advice you can always speak to your doctor or a qualified nutritionist.