Whether it’s for ethnical reasons or because they just dislike the taste of meat, many Australians are opting for vegetarianism. But is a vegetarian diet balanced? Catherine Kladakis investigates.

What is a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarianism excludes, meat, fish and poultry from the diet. There are different types of vegetarian diets including:
Vegan: Avoids all animal products including honey.

Lacto: Avoids meat and eggs, but dairy food is included.

Ovo: Avoids meat and dairy products but consumes eggs.

Ovo-lacto: Avoids meat but dairy food and eggs are included.

Is a vegetarian diet healthy?

The Dietitians Association of Australia agrees that a vegetarian diet can be very healthy as many plant foods are lower in saturated fat and higher in dietary fibre.

A reduction in saturated animal fats can help to reduce blood cholesterol levels, the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, as well as reduce overall body weight.

However, a healthy vegetarian diet requires careful planning to make sure it is well balanced. Vegetarians risk deficiencies in iron and B-12.

“Often women may be choosing a diet change to simply lose weight and unknowingly may have low iron and B-12 before they start their diet,” says well known accredited practicing dietician, Geraldine Georgeou. “So if they then choose a vegetarian diet, the likelihood of having undiagnosed anaemia is very high.”

Anaemia causes extreme tiredness, which is likely to lead to cravings for sugar hits which will only further sabotage your weight loss anyway.

Georgeou suggests checking in with your doctor and seeing an accredited dietician to individualise your eating plan first.

The benefits:

Vegetarians have a lower risk of developing heart disease and are 24 per cent less likely to die from heart disease compared with non-vegetarians (according to two 1999 studies by Fraser, G.E et al., published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition).

The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that the incidence of cancer can be reduced by 30-40 per cent if people consume plant-based diets, are physically active and maintain a healthy body weight.

Vegetarians on average, are thinner and have a lower body mass index than non-vegetarians according to several scientific studies But this does not necessarily mean they are healthy. Often they are nutrient and energy deficient.

Vegetarians are twice as likely to have lower blood pressure compared to non-vegetarians. (according to Messina MJ, Messina VL in The Dietitians Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications).

Non-vegetarians have a 54 per cent increased risk of developing prostate cancer and an 88 per cent increased risk of developing bowel cancer (Fraser, G.E, 1999).

Vegetarians may be half as likely to develop gallstones as non-vegetarians (American Dietetic Association, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2003).

If you are going veg…

A vegetarian diet often contains less protein iron, zinc, B12 and calcium than a meat based diet and so it is important for vegetarians to eat plenty of foods rich in these minerals.

Iron: Is important for helping to transport oxygen around the body, as well as for immune function and cognitive development.
The iron found in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as in meat, so special attention must be paid to increasing your intake.

Sources: Lentils, Chickpeas, tofu, dried apricots and figs, eggs, fortified whole-grain cereals and flours, molasses, green leafy vegetables.

Tip: Include an iron rich food at every meal. Eat a food high in Vitamin C such as lemon, capsicum or broccoli with your iron source to increase iron absorption

Zinc: Is essential for the body’s immune system, important for growth, and for healthy skin.

Sources: Chickpeas, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, tahini paste, cheddar cheese, yoghurt.

Vit B12: Important for the formation of red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. A deficiency can lead to a form of anaemia, nerve damage, and mental dysfunction.

Sources: Plant foods cannot be relied on as a safe source of vitamin B12- the only reliable unfortified sources are meat, dairy and eggs.

To prevent a deficiency, vegans must find a reliable source of vitamin B12, such as fortified soy milk, or consider a B-12 supplement (see your doctor/dietitian first).

Calcium: Important for forming and maintaining bones.

Sources: Dairy products. Vegans should opt for calcium fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, calcium rich tofu, and calcium fortified cereals. Calcium supplements are another option for vegans.

Protein: Kidney beans, milk, peanuts, cheese, egg, tofu, grains.