Following a vegetarian diet has some great advantages – lots more fruit and vegetables, less saturated fat and a lot more fibre. For these reasons, vegetarians tend to have less heart disease than people eating meat. However, unless you plan well, many vegetarians can risk being low in protein and iron. We take a look at some of the key foods you need to include whether you are vegetarian full time or just want to cut back on the amount of meat you eat.
Start with Protein
People who eat meat and fish get lots of protein from these foods. If you decide to avoid meat, then you need to look for protein from beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. You need to eat two to three handfuls of beans, lentils or nuts everyday to get all of the protein you need – you can’t just do this once a week! Add nuts to breakfast cereals, bean salads to lunch and try a lentil curry for dinner. You need to compliment your nuts and beans with protein from grains to get the right balance of amino acids. Try bean salads with whole grain bread, stir fry’s with beans and noodles or lentil lasagne.
Iron can be a problem for vegetarians as red meat and shellfish are two great sources of iron. Luckily beans and lentils are also good sources and if you are eating all of the protein you need, you will be picking up iron from your beans at the same time.
Beware of cheese! Although cheese can be a great source of protein for vegetarians it can be high in saturated fat. For this reason cheese should not be your main source of protein, focus on beans, lentils and nuts instead.
Oil-rich fish is a great source of omega-3 fats but you can also pick up omega-3 fats in walnuts, rapeseed oil and flaxseeds. ALAis the type of omega-3 found in plants. It can help to keep cholesterol levels healthy. EPA and DHA, the omega-3s found in fish are important for the brain, especially for brain development during pregnancy. Although our bodies can convert some ALAinto EPA and DHA, it cannot convert enough for good health. Fish and fish oils may be important for vegetarian and vegan mothers to take during pregnancy and breast feeding. You can find more information about this in the Infant Feeding Guidelines at www.fsai.ie.
Experts recommended that we cut back on the amount of meat we eat and try more vegetarian meals. Even if you don’t want to give up meat altogether, you could try a ‘meatless Monday’ where you swap your usual meal for one based on beans or lentils.