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Eating More Plants - the vegetarian way

Eating less meat and more plant foods no longer raises the eyebrows it once did.  With the idea of Meatless Monday taking hold and a range of celebrity and sportspeople embracing vegetarian eating, it no longer feels like a rather out-there alternative lifestyle.  While not everyone is ready to embrace full-on vegetarian eating, basing your diet largely on plant foods seems to have become quite commonplace.

Vegetarian can mean a wide range of eating styles:

  • Vegans – who avoid all animal-derived products.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians – who also eat dairy and eggs.
  • Pesce vegetarians, also called Pescetarians or even Vegaquarians – who also include fish or seafood.
  • Flexitarians – who eat mostly vegetarian meals, but include some animal foods some of the time.
  • And even Vegivores – who are all about the plants they eat, loving veg as much (or more) than any meat they might include.

Whatever the style of vegetarian diet, deciding to eat less meat is often greeted with warnings about potential dire consequences.  While there are some nutrients that are of special concern, there’s no need to get too worried about them. A recent set of papers published in the Medical Journal of Australia 241 laid to rest many of the old-vegetarian tales:

Getting enough ‘good quality’ protein.

Once it was thought you had to carefully combine different sorts of plant protein foods to ensure all the building blocks of protein – the amino acids – were together so it was comparable to animal protein.  Now we know that the body can do this itself – as long as you eat a variety of proteins daily and eat enough energy overall, the body can take a little of what it needs from each. No need for special protein combining at each meal 242.

Vegetarians are short on iron.

This one has been trotted out by mothers everywhere when faced with a child going vegetarian. However, vegetarians are no more at risk of iron deficiency than their meat-eating friends – the body becomes much more efficient at absorbing iron from plant foods when it needs it 243.  It also helps to include a vitamin C rich food with plant iron foods.; the vitamin C helps absorb the plant iron.

Vegetarians don’t absorb enough zinc.

In fact, when zinc intake is lower, vegetarians absorb more zinc and retain it better. Plus, although there has been concern in the past that inhibitors of zinc (and iron) absorption, called phytates, can be high enough to cause problems in vegetarian diets, these are now known to be minimised by the processing that most key sources undergo (for example, heating, soaking, fermenting and leavening) 244.

Vitamin B12 is of concern if you don’t eat any animal foods (vegan) so supplements or vitamin B12 fortified foods are needed, and the jury is still out on the relative roles of plant omega-3 fats and fish omega-3s 241, but overall, it seems there’s a lot less for plant eating lovers to worry about.

Avocados are a delicious addition to any diet – but especially important in vegetarian eating to add interest, flavour, texture, healthy fats, vitamin C, and a little protein, iron and zinc, plus antioxidants, and fibre.  Avocados are also a source of plant omega 3s.  I recommend checking out the vegetarian recipe results in Australian Avocado Recipe Finder for lots of vegetarian dish ideas, and why don’t you try a Meatless Monday this coming week?  Make eating more plants a regular habit!

 

Author: Lisa Yates, Consultant Dietitian Adv APD
Lisa Yates is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian with 16 years experience in nutrition, communications, clinical practice, as well as strategy development and implementation.

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