Day 12 of our 30-day nutrition challenge is to relieve your meal boredom and encourage you out of your comfort zone by following a new recipe each week – make it vegetarian or vegan whilst being aware of the essential nutrient inclusions listed below.
We all get bored of the same meals on rotation so here’s a reason to try something new. Eating just one more vegetarian or vegan meal per week can:
- Increase your 5-a-day
- Boost your fibre, vitamins and minerals
- Cut down the amount of saturated fat in your diet
- Reduce the risk of health conditions e.g. heart disease, some cancers, type-2 diabetes
It’s important to make sure you still cover all the basic nutrition that your body needs to stay healthy. At a basic level a balanced diet which is made up of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is important. Removing meat, eating lots of bread, pasta, and a limited range of fruit and vegetables will not bring you any additional benefits however – it’s all about variety of food. The more varied, the better your microbiome will be in and will thank you with better health.
Here’s a reminder of what we need to include preferably in each meal;
Carbohydrates are a quick and easy source of fuel for energy. Carbohydrates make up quite a large proportion of vegetarian meal. Vegetarians and vegans don’t generally struggle to include this group of food but check that its wholegrains and wholemeal versions you include rather than white pasta, white rice, and starchy carbohydrates are good to also feed your microbiome.
Proteins are important for muscle function and immunity. It can be a little more challenging to include enough protein in vegetarian meals. Complete protein comes from animals (meat, fish, dairy eggs), so at least one source of dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), eggs, soya, quinoa, meat alternatives tofu, mycoprotein e.g. Quorn, textured vegetable protein, or tempeh. Or combining at least two of the following: nuts, seeds, peas, beans, lentils, grains to give your meal the extra protein boost.
Fats are crucial for cells formation, protection and brain function. Western society tends not to eat enough good fats. Where possible try to increase omega-3 fats and reducing saturated and omega-6 fats. Switching sunflower oil to rapeseed oil is a good tip. A vegetarian source of omega-3 is algal oil (which comes from algae) instead of fish oil.[i]
The UK Government suggest a vegetarian diet should include (link to visual guide);
- At least 5-a-day fruit/vegetables. Remembering 1 portion is the size of a clenched fist, and preferably no more than 2 fruit per day
- Meals should include whole grains and dairy / dairy alternatives (soya, oat, rice milks which are fortified). Protein sources should be varied including; lentils, beans, peas, eggs, Quorn, soya products or textured vegetable protein. Good fats should also be included and are found in olive, rapeseed, sunflower and corn oil.
It’s unlikely you might miss some essential nutrients through eating just one or two vegetarian or vegan meals per week, but if eating them more frequently be aware the following might be lower in your diet:
Iron is needed to make red blood cells which transport oxygen to give us energy, but it’s harder to absorb iron from plant sources than animal sources. Adding a source of vitamin C to the same meal (red pepper, citrus fruit) and avoiding tea, coffee, and grains in the same meal can boost the absorption of iron. If taking an iron supplement perhaps the best time to take it is with a source of vitamin C and away from other foods e.g. at bedtime. Some of the best vegetarian / vegan iron sources include;
- Dried fruit
- Dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, spring greens)
- Wholemeal bread
- Cereals fortified with iron
B12 is only naturally found in animal products and is essential for a healthy nervous system and red blood cell formation. When dietary sources are low it can leave you feeling low in energy / anaemic. B12 can be taken as a supplement (1.5mcg per day), or found in the following;
- Fortified foods e.g. marmite, breakfast cereals, soya products
- Fermented products (tempeh, miso, spirulina) contain similar substances to B12 but don’t work in the body in the same way so not as reliable a source of B12
Omega-3 is one of natures best anti-inflammatories, helping with joint health, lowering cholesterol, hair, skin, and nail growth among many other areas. Oily fish is our best source of omega-3, but unfortunately vegetarian / vegan omega-3 sources don’t have the same benefits for many health conditions as oily fish. Although it is suggested the following are high in omega-3, it is more difficult for the body to convert them into the beneficial form of omega-3. Algal (algae) oil which can be purchased from health food stores is at the moment considered one of the best sources of vegetarian / vegan omega-3. Dietary vegetarian sources which are not quite as good, but should still be included as part of a varied and balanced diet include;
- Rapeseed oil
- Eggs enriched with omega 3
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