Meat Free Diets

Many people are choosing to follow vegetarian or vegan diets, increasingly for sustainability as well as for animal welfare reasons. A growing number of people are also now following semi-vegetarian diets where they eat meat occasionally. This growing trend has been termed ‘flexitarianism’.

Vegetarians usually don’t eat meat, poultry, fish or shellfish and in some cases avoid animal products such as eggs and dairy food altogether. Vegetarian diets can be nutritionally well balanced and healthy, but there are some specific nutrients to be aware of to ensure there are enough of these in the diet to stay healthy

Protein:

Protein is made up from smaller building blocks called amino acids. A number of amino acids are essential, meaning that our body cannot make them itself and instead relies on obtaining them through our diet. Whilst protein in meat contains all the essential amino acids, most plant based foods only contain some of the essential amino acids. The type of amino acids found in plant based foods varies from plant to plant. By eating a mixture of different plant proteins you can help ensure that people get all the essential amino acids. Good vegetarian sources of protein include: beans, lentils and chickpeas, nuts, seeds, soya products and dairy products and eggs. Did you know that quinoa is one of the very few plant based foods to contain all the essential amino acids?

Iron:

In our diet is found in two main types, one is found in meat, and the other is found in plant based foods. Although red meat is very high in iron, vegetarians can easily get enough iron by eating a healthy balanced diet and making sure that they include good sources of plant based iron in their diet. Good sources of iron include: dried fruit (particularly apricots), beans and lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, nuts and wholemeal bread. Did you know that vitamin C helps the absorption of iron?

People should eat some vitamin C rich food with each meal such as vegetables, fruit or fruit juice to aid the absorption of iron. Tea can stop us from absorbing iron properly, so it is a good idea to avoid drinking tea an hour either side of meals.

Calcium:

Dairy foods are a rich source of calcium. For those who cannot eat these foods as part of their diet it is important to make sure they can get sufficient calcium from other foods, such as: nuts, dried fruit, sesame seeds, calcium fortified foods such as soya milk and yoghurt, brown and white bread, kale and pak choi. Did you know that although spinach contains calcium our bodies cannot absorb it properly? Therefore stick to offering spinach as a source of iron, but offer other non-dairy calcium rich foods to meet people’s calcium requirements.

Vitamin D:

Is essential to help the body absorb calcium. Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight. Vegetarian dietary sources include fortified breakfast cereals, eggs and fortified fat spreads.

Iodine:

Is crucial for healthy brain development in infants. Low levels of iodine during pregnancy may mean that your baby’s brain may not develop as well as it could and this could affect your child’s ability to learn. Vegetarians and vegans may be at greater risk of iodine deficiency as they may not eat many of the iodine rich food sources such as meat, fish and dairy. It is also important to be aware that non-dairy milk alternatives such as soya milk are often not fortified with iodine. Small amounts of iodised salt or sea vegetables are vegan friendly sources of iodine.

Vitamin B12:

Whilst eggs and dairy foods contain vitamin B12, vegans should include fortified foods that contain this essential vitamin, for example yeast extract and breakfast cereals.

Selenium:

For people following a vegetarian diet, one of the best sources of selenium are nuts, especially Brazil nuts.