Day 12 of our 30-day nutrition challenge is 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

Balance

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. 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. Check that its wholegrains and wholemeal versions rather than white pasta, white rice.

Proteins are important for muscle function and immunity. It can be a little more challenging at first 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 cell formation, protection and brain function among many things. Western society generally doesn’t 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]

Eatwell plate

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.

What’s missing?

It’s unlikely you might miss some essential nutrients through eating just one or two vegetarian or vegan meals per week, but if reducing animal products 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;

  • Eggs
  • Pulses
  • 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, or found in the following;

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • 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 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;

  • Flaxseed/linseed
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Soya
  • Walnuts
  • Eggs enriched with omega 3

We’ve written a blog on Optimising vegetarian diet, and you can also find out more in our Bitesize basics webinar and our Bitesize Nutrition podcasts. If you’re new to podcasts you can listen free without registration on your phone or PC simply by clicking on the podcast link in this paragraph, or you can listen on iTunes & Spotify.

Don’t forget to let us know what you think using #nutritionchallenge30

A reminder:

  • The information in this article is for educational purposes and should not replace medical advice.
  • The information is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.
  • If you have a diagnosed medical condition, you should consult a doctor before making any major changes to your diet, and;
  • Some supplements may interact with medications and you should check with your GP before commencing any supplement programme.

[i] https://www.vegsoc.org/info-hub/health-and-nutrition/fats-and-omegas/

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