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How to be a Healthy Vegetarian

By: Siobhan ONeill - Updated: 18 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Vegetarian Healthy Diet Balanced Fruit

A vegetarian diet is a very healthy diet because it’s usually very low in saturated fat. Eating lots of vegetables, pulses, fruits and alternative sources of protein like Soya, beans and nuts, is almost a guarantee of good health.

But, like all diets, the key is to ensure it’s properly balanced or you may find yourself missing out on certain aspects. Not eating meat can mean changes in the way your body receives and processes its vitamins and minerals, but it isn’t hard to ensure you’re getting the right mix.

Most people think a vegetarian diet is low in iron and therefore you are at greater risk of anaemia than meat eaters. In fact iron deficiency is common in Britain and anaemia is no more likely among vegetarians than those who eat meat. Iron is delivered to the body in two ways called haem and non-haem iron. Non-haem iron is the kind that comes from vegetables, grains, pulses, eggs and so on. It’s recommended that an adult male needs 8.7mg of iron a day, and pre-menopausal women need at least 14.8mg a day. That’s quite a lot – even if you regularly eat meat.

For vegetarians, the best sources of iron are:

  • Chickpeas - 6.2mg iron in 200g
  • Bran flakes - 5.3mg iron in 45g
  • Spinach - 4.0 mg iron in 100g
  • Baked beans - 3.2 mg iron in 225g
  • Muesli - 2.8 mg iron in 60g
  • Dried apricots - 2.1 mg iron in 50g
  • Egg - 1.3 mg iron in one egg
  • Avocado - 1.1 mg iron in 75g
  • Wholemeal bread - 1.0 mg iron in one 40g slice
  • Broccoli - 1.0 mg iron in 100g
  • Brown rice - 0.9 mg iron in 200g
  • Peanut butter - 0.5 mg iron in 20g
Dairy products like yoghurt and milk also contain a little iron, as do bananas. In order to maximise your body’s ability to take the iron from the foods you eat, you also need to eat vitamin C which helps release the non-haem iron. Eating citrus fruits, tomatoes, green peppers and leafy vegetables will help you absorb the iron and make the best use of it in your diet.A balanced daily vegetarian diet should generally consist of:

  • 5 servings of fruit and vegetables
  • 3 or 4 servings of carbohydrates like grains, cereals or potatoes
  • 2 or 3 servings of protein from pulses, nuts or seeds
  • 2 servings of milk, cheese, eggs or Soya
  • A small amount of fat from margarine, butter or oil
  • Preferably, a little Marmite or other yeast extract that contains vitamin B12.
Men need about 55g of protein a day, women about 45g unless they’re pregnant or lactating in which case they need more. Protein for veggies comes from nuts; seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame etc.); pulses (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts); grains, cereals and rice; Soya products like tofu, Quorn, or other textured vegetable proteins and Soya milk; and eggs.

More than half of the carbohydrate in your diet should come from the group called complex carbohydrates, rather than sugars or starches. Potatoes and parsnips contain complex carbs as do cereals and grains - so bread, rice, pasta, rye, oats, barley and millet are all great. Brown rice and wholemeal bread are best of all because they’re also high in fibre and a good source of B vitamins.

Vitamins and Minerals
The best way to ensure you’re getting a good balance of all essential vitamins is to eat fruits and vegetables of all different colours. Red, orange and yellow fruits and veg (carrots, tomatoes, apricots, and peaches) are a good source of vitamin A. Vitamin B occurs in whole cereals and yeasts, nuts, seeds, pulses and green vegetables. Vitamin B12 does not occur in plants but is often added to breakfast cereals. Only small amounts are required and milk and free-range eggs usually contain enough. Vegans may need to be more careful and ensure they buy Soya milk and yeast extract to which B12 has been added.Vitamin D does not occur in plants and is one thing that really only comes from animal products. However, it is produced naturally in the skin when exposed to sunshine. It is also present in milk, cheese and butter, and is added to many margarines. Vegans may need to consider a supplement, especially if they rarely go outside.

Vegans may also need to be careful to eat enough calcium. Apart from dairy products, calcium is present in leafy veg, bread, nuts, seeds and dried fruit.

Remembering these simple guidelines will ensure you eat a healthy, balanced diet. It’s easy to maintain because most of the essential vitamins and minerals occur naturally in cereals and vegetables, so as long as you’re getting a good mix, you should not lack anything particular. However, if you switch from a meat eating to a vegetarian diet and find yourself feeling tired, experiencing headaches, suffering from insomnia or any other symptoms you didn’t have before, you should consult your doctor and tell them about your new diet to make sure you’re not deficient in any one area.

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