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Achieving a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet

Vitamins and nutrients to include in a vegetarian or vegan diet


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be nutritionally balanced and health promoting for young people. However, it is very important that when avoiding animal products, you substitute them with nutritious alternatives such as dairy foods and eggs if you're vegetarian, and pulses, nuts, seeds and cereals if you're vegan or vegetarian.

The difference between vegetarian and vegan diets

While there are many similarities between a vegetarian and a vegan diet, there are a few key differences.

Vegetarian

A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat or poultry (chicken, duck, turkey, etc.) but eats eggs and milk products (cheese, yoghurt, butter, etc).

Vegan

A vegan is someone who does not eat any food that comes from an animal. This means cutting out meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, most cheeses and yoghurts, butter, and any foods that contain these ingredients.

How to achieve a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet

It is possible to have a nutrient-rich, balanced and healthy diet as a vegetarian or vegan. Paying attention to what you're eating and what vitamins and nutrients you're getting from each meal will help you to stay healthy and have more energy.

Here are some things to consider when planning a vegetarian or vegan meal.

Energy

Everybody needs enough energy to grow and be healthy. Sometimes a vegetarian or vegan diet can low in energy.

If you need to boost your energy intake, you can try adding some of these to your meals:

  • Potato
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Bread

Adding the following to snacks will also help to boost your energy intake:

  • Yoghurts
  • Nuts
  • Extra spread and jams on bread, bagels or crackers
  • Sauce or gravy on meals
  • Dressing on salad or foods cooked in oils

Protein

Protein is necessary to build and repair body tissues and is essential for growth. Our tissues are continually being broken down and replaced, so protein is needed every day.

Protein is made up of amino acids, and some of these amino acids can only be found in the food we eat. This means we need to make sure we are eating enough food with these amino acids every day. Animal foods e.g. eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt and soya products provide each of the amino acids.

Some high protein vegetarian foods include:

  • Eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt

Some high protein foods that both vegetarians and vegans can eat include:

  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Chickpeas
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Beans
  • Oats
  • Chia seeds
  • Nuts and nut butter (like almond or peanut butter)

These are just some of the options vegans and vegetarians have for adding protein to meals. Try to make sure you have at least one protein source in every meal.

Iron

Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body. A low level of iron in the body is called anaemia, and causes symptoms such as a pale face colour, tiredness, and loss of appetite. If you're feeling very tired on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to increase your iron intake.

Foods containing iron include:

  • Leafy greens like spinach
  • Tofu or tempeh
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Seeds like pumpkin, sesame, hemp or flax seeds
  • Nuts such as cashew nuts

Vegetarian women, trans men, and teenagers should pay special attention to include iron rich foods in their diets every day. Sometimes an iron supplement may be required. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements, because too much iron can be dangerous and supplements should only be taken if they're needed.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is not only good for boosting your immune system and helping you to recover from sickness faster. It also increases how much iron your body absorbs, so foods that are rich in Vitamin C are great to eat alongside foods that are rich in Iron.

Vitamin C can be found in:

  • Citrus fruits and their juices such as oranges
  • Kiwis
  • Blackcurrants
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Peppers

These are just some of the foods that are rich in Vitamin C.

Calcium

Calcium is essential for the formation of strong bones and teeth. During adolescence, bones are developing and they continue to become more dense until the age of 35. Eating enough calcium and taking regular exercise during these years, is vital to protect against developing osteoporosis (a condition which causes the body to lose bone or to stop making enough bone) in later life.

Products with calcium include:

  • Calcium fortified milk
  • Dairy yogurt and cheese
  • Soya milk
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Almond nuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Tofu

Vegans and some vegetarians may need to take a calcium or vitamin D supplement as they continue with their diet.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential nutrient for health and growth. Vegetarian diets may not always provide us with enough zinc, therefore it is important to regularly eat zinc rich foods.

Source of zinc include:

  • Cheese
  • Pulses
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Wholegrain cereals

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood and nerve cells. 

Sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • Dairy foods
  • Eggs
  • Yeast extracts
  • Some vegetable stocks
  • Textured vegetable protein
  • Soya milk
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

It is especially important that vegans include a source of vitamin B12 in their diet.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is needed for healthy bones and teeth.

The main sources of vitamin D for vegetarians include:

  • Eggs,
  • Dairy foods such as butter, cheese and milk,
  • Oily fish,
  • Fortified soya milk,
  • Fortified margarine and oily spreads

Most people receive enough vitamin D by the action of sunlight on the skin, but those with little sun exposure may need a vitamin D supplement.

Vegan alternatives

With even more restrictions in a vegan diet, it can be easy to feel limited in what you can cook with. But there are plenty of vegan alternatives that you can substitute into a recipe.

There are plenty of options out there, and if you're cooking and need a substitute for something, googling it will bring up a whole range of options, no matter what you need. 

As veganism grows more popular, more and more products are appearing on the shelves. Experiment with different products to find something you like.

Dairy substitutes

When it comes to milk, there's a lot more out there than just cow's milk. Here are some alternative milk options to try:

  • Soy milk
  • Almond milk
  • Rice milk
  • Oat milk
  • Coconut milk

Coconut oil can also be used as a spread instead of butter, and you can also use nut butter, like peanut or almond butter, as a spread on toast, bagels, or bread.

There are also plenty of soy cheeses available.

Eggs

If you are baking sweet foods such as cake, applesauce can be used as a replacement. For savoury use, most health food shops also sell egg replacer products.

Sweeteners

Some vegans do not eat regular table sugar because when sugar cane is refined from its plant source, it is passed through activated charcoal, which may be of animal origin.

Alternative vegan sweeteners include maple syrup, raw cane sugar, brown rice syrup, and stevia. Honey is subject to debate, and some vegans choose not to eat it because it is produced by bees, while others do.

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Published Jan­u­ary 4th2013
Last updated Sep­tem­ber 12th2018
Tags food health balanced diet vegetarian
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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