People practice a vegetarian lifestyle for various reasons. The four main types of vegetarians are:
- Strict vegetarian or vegan – excludes all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products.
- Lacto-vegetarian – excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs but includes dairy products.
- Lacto-ovovegetarian – excludes meat, poultry and fish but includes eggs and dairy products.
- Flexitarian – a semi-vegetarian diet with a focus on vegetarian food but will occasionally eat meat.
It doesn’t matter which category of vegetarian you fall into, or if you are considering becoming a vegetarian, to maintain a healthy diet you need to choose a variety of foods which include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. This is because some important nutrients and vitamins (see below) found in animal products may be missing from your diet.
- Iron – Iron is a key component of haemoglobin (the red colouring in blood cells). Good sources of iron include dark green vegetables (like spinach), broccoli, dried fruits, prune juice, oatmeal, nuts and potatoes (eaten with skin). Eating foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, orange juice, tomatoes, broccoli, capsicum, strawberries) at each meal increases iron absorption.
- Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of red blood cells (prevents anaemia) and the metabolism of carbohydrate and fat. It is found in animal foods (including eggs and diary products), which normally is not a concern for vegetarians who eat some dairy products or eggs. However, strict vegetarians or vegans may need to take a vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supplement.
- Calcium – Calcium helps the formation of bones and teeth and the prevention of rickets and osteoporosis. If dairy products are not included in your diet, adequate amounts of calcium can be obtained from plant foods, such as leafy green vegetables, broccoli, beans, tofu, almonds, sesame seeds and sesame butter (tahini), figs, rice milk, soy milk.
- Protein – Protein is essential for all aspects of growth and repair in the body. It is found in most plant foods as well as animal foods. Good sources of protein include beans, whole grains, soy products, nuts and seeds, quinoa, dairy products, eggs.
So, if you are or are considering becoming a vegetarian, keep in mind to maintain a healthy diet.