The number of Australian adults whose diet is all or almost vegetarian has risen in recent years. The reasons for becoming a vegetarian vary for each individual, including health, environmental, personal, religious or ethical beliefs.
Vegetarians may have varying attitudes and eating behaviours but they all base their diet on foods of plant origin. Whilst being a vegetarian has many health benefits, a poorly planned vegetarian diet can result in inadequate nutritional intake.
Benefits of vegetarian diets
Research already shows that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can protect against a range of diseases such as:
- Heart diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
- Some types of cancer
More research is required to understand how a vegetarian diet influences long-term health.
Special nutritional considerations for vegetarians
It is important to plan your diet and eat a wide variety of foods to ensure it includes all the essential nutrients. Key nutrients that require special consideration for vegetarian diets include:
- Plays a vital role in building and repair of our body. Eating a wide variety of protein sources throughout the day is important to achieve adequate protein requirements.
- The best form is found in animal products such as dairy and eggs, but it is also available from plants sources including legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products and wholegrains.
- An important role in red blood cell formation, brain and nerve health.
- Vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal products. Mushrooms provide a modest amount of vitamin B12 but are not a major source, with one serve only providing around 5% of daily requirements.
- Good plant-based sources include fortified soy and cereal beverages and products. If avoiding all animal products altogether, consuming fortified B12 foods is important to avoid deficiency. B12 supplementation may be necessary under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
- An important mineral that helps transport oxygen around the body.
- Iron from animal sources is more readily absorbed than plant sources. Absorption from plant sources improves when eaten with high vitamin C fruits and vegetables. E.g., adding orange or lemon to a green leafy salad.
- Sources include legumes, nuts, leafy greens like spinach and fortified cereals.
- Important role in supporting key immune functions and tissue healing.
- Sources include legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds
- Important for support and development of bones and teeth, as well as muscle health.
- Sources include dairy products, fortified cereals and dark leafy greens especially Asian greens.
- Required for support of strong bones and muscles.
- Diet sources include oily fish, liver and eggs but the best source of Vitamin D is sunlight.
- Consuming fortified milk, soy products and cereals as well as safe sun exposure can avoid Vitamin D deficiency.
Is a vegetarian diet for me and my family?
The reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet varies for everyone. A vegetarian diet requires strong knowledge and planning to ensure it includes all the essential nutrients required for good health.
For a child on a vegetarian diet, extra planning and special consideration is required to ensure they are meeting their nutritional requirements and consuming enough energy to grow. Infants transitioning from breast milk to solids will require frequent protein and high-energy meals and snacks. Examples include mashed tofu and cottage cheese. Iron is another important nutrient that needs to be included through fortified iron cereal and dark leafy greens from the age of 6 months.
It is important to always seek professional health advice from your doctor or dietitian when considering a vegetarian or vegan diet for yourself or children.