How to be a healthy Vegetarian
If you’re a vegetarian, or want to cut back on meat, make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need with this guide to a healthy vegetarian diet.
Vegetarians should enjoy a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit with some also choosing to include dairy products, including cheese (made using vegetable rennet) and eggs. Studies suggest that a plant-based diet like this can be a healthier way to eat with fewer reported cases of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Typically, a varied vegetarian diet contains less saturated fat and more folate, fibre and antioxidants, plus as a vegetarian you’re more likely to exceed the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables.
Follow some simple rules like getting a minimum five-a-day of fruit and veg, including wholegrains and choosing more beans and pulses, while opting for lower fat, lower sugar dairy foods. But that's not the whole story. How much should you be eating and is there an ideal time to eat protein, carbs or fats?
Reference Intakes (RI)
The RIs are benchmarks for the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt that an average, moderately active adult should consume each day. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. There is no RI for fibre, although health experts suggest we have 30g a day. Don’t forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients so this information is for guidance only
But how much should I eat.
A protein-based breakfast is an ideal choice because it's a filling and sustaining way to start the day and needn't take any longer to prepare than toast or cereal. For example, while your bread is toasting, scramble an egg for a nutritious toast topper Eggs provide a good balance of quality protein combined with fat, plus the yolks are a useful source of vitamin D, which we need for strong bones and teeth. Protein slows stomach emptying, keeping you fuller for longer so you'll eat fewer calories during the rest of the day. If you do prefer your breakfast in a bowl, pack your porridge or cereal with a selection of nuts and seeds and finish with a generous dollop of natural yogurt.
Many people think vegetarians are at risk of being low in the mineral iron, but there are plenty of plant foods that are good sources along with breakfast cereals, muesli, wholemeal bread and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Enjoy any of these with a small glass of fruit juice, rich in vitamin C, to optimise your body’s iron uptake. For those who avoid dairy, like milk and yogurt, choose an alternative that is fortified with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.
Whatever you do, don't skip breakfast as this sets your blood sugar off on a roller-coaster that means you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight.
Make every snack count with nourishing options that supply both the 'pick-me-up' you need while topping up your portions of fruit and veg, or delivering key nutrients like iron or vitamin D. Swap your morning biscuits for toast topped with slices of banana, bake a batch of fruit-packed muffins or blend up a fruit smoothie.
At lunch, aim for a mix of protein from beans, peas, nuts, grains or dairy products, combined with starchy carbs. You need carb-rich foods because without them you're likely to suffer that classic mid-afternoon slump. The key is to choose carbs that produce a steady rise in blood sugar, which means passing on the sugary 'white' foods and going for high-fibre wholegrains that help you manage those afternoon munchies.
We need some fats in our diet, but it’s important we don’t eat too much and the focus should be on the right type of fat. Fat is not only a source of energy, it helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat, but keep in mind that full-fat dairy, as well as some plant foods like coconut and palm oils, are high in these saturates. Heart-friendly mono-unsaturated fats are found in plant foods like avocado, olive and rapeseed oils, whilst nuts and seeds supply the heart-friendly polyunsaturates, including the omega-3 variety. It’s these unsaturated fats that we should be eating more of, so include a tablespoon of ground linseed or two tablespoons of oil, or the equivalent of unsalted nuts, daily.
For many it's not sugar so much as salty, savoury foods they crave in the afternoon. If this sounds like you, forget the crisps and opt instead for a spiced seed mix, savoury popcorn or enjoy lower fat cream cheese on crackers or a crunchy colourful salad.
Don't curfew carbs. They're low in fat, fibre-rich and help you relax in the evening, plus they’re filling, which means they’ll get you through to breakfast. Combine them with some healthy essential fats, such as the ones you find in nuts, especially walnuts, as well as seeds like pumpkin and some protein from tofu, eggs or dairy. During the night your body will use the protein and these healthy fats for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair.