How to Create a Healthy Vegetarian Diet

A healthy vegetarian diet doesn't just mean boring salads and carrot sticks - it means your diet will include a wide range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes in nutritious (and great-tasting) meals. Plus, going vegetarian has stacks of added health benefits.

Whether you're just opting for 'meat-free Mondays' or are a more committed vegetarian who excludes animal products altogether from your diet, you still need to follow healthy-eating principles to ensure you're getting all the nutrition you need.

12WBT's experts have done all the research for you to put together this great guide to being a healthy vegetarian.

Definitions of Vegetarian

People who follow a vegetarian diet have chosen to either limit or completely exclude red meat, fish, seafood and poultry from the foods they eat.

While lean meat is an excellent source or protein and energy, eating a non-vegetarian diet that includes a lot of animal fats, such as those found in fatty red meat, can lead to increased risk of heart disease.

With careful planning, a vegetarian can get all the protein, vitamins and minerals necessary for optimum health and nutrition in their meat-free diet.

There are many health benefits of a vegetarian diet. For starters, going vegetarian automatically increases your intake of great fruits and vegetables and is rich in plant-based foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

What types of vegetarian diets are there?

There are many different types of vegetarian diet, from some that exclude animal products altogether to those that include a small amount of meat or fish on occasion.

Semi-vegetarian or 'flexitarian' diet: includes red meat, poultry and fish less than once a week or on a special occasion.

Pesco-vegetarian or 'pescotarian' diet: includes fish and seafood, but no red meat or poultry.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet: includes dairy foods and eggs, but no red meat, poultry or seafood. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.

Lacto-vegetarian diet: includes dairy foods but no eggs, red meat, poultry or seafood.

Ovo-vegetarian diet: includes eggs, but no dairy foods, red meat, poultry or seafood.

Vegan diet: excludes all animal products including red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy foods. In addition, most vegans won't use honey or other animal products such as gelatine.

Why Follow a Vegetarian Diet?

The reasons for becoming a vegetarian vary from person to person. Some traditional diets, such as an Asian and Mediterranean diet, are more plant-based than the modern Western diet and have limited meat consumption.

Some people choose a vegetarian diet because they dislike eating a large amount of meat or dairy products, while others choose a vegetarian diet for either religious, cultural, ethical or environmental reasons.

Still others choose a more plant-based diet for the added health benefits of including more fruit and vegetables and lowering meat consumption. Some people are incidentally vegetarian because they never think of eating meat as part of their diet.

A recent report from the Medical Journal of Australia said that a well-planned vegetarian diet "may reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity".

It went on to say that "vegetarian diets are generally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in dietary fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals than non-vegetarian diets".

With these amazing health benefits as the rewards of a vegetarian diet, it's easy to see why some people go meat-free for their health and well-being.

Can't I Just cut out Meat?

No! You need to think about how to compensate for it in your diet.

Lean meat is an excellent source of protein and a rich source of minerals, so by removing it you need to ensure that both are adequately replaced.

"A diet of hot chips with tomato sauce could be classified as vegetarian, but it's certainly not balanced and not meeting all our essential dietary requirements," says 12WBT dietitian Lisa Donaldson.

Vegetarians need to raise their intake of iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

To find out what food groups form the basis of a healthy diet, as recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines, read our article on healthy foods.**


The Keys to Being a Healthy Vegetarian

Protein

Protein helps us feel fuller for longer and is the building block for muscle replenishment and recovery.

It's also important for the normal functioning of muscles, transmitting nerve impulses and boosting immunity.

Good sources of protein can be found in low-fat dairy, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, tempeh and even in carbohydrate-rich foods like quinoa and oats.

Iron and Zinc

Iron and zinc intake requires conscious management in a vegetarian diet.

That's because iron found in plant foods is not as "bioavailable" to the body as haem iron found in red meat.

This means iron from plant sources is harder to absorb and needs to be combined with vitamin C to be taken in properly.

Food sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans include whole grains, legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and cereals fortified with iron.

Good sources of vitamin C-rich foods to add to your diet include citrus fruits, tomato and capsicum.

An example of combining iron and vitamin C in a vegetarian meal would be a lentil salad dressed with a squeeze of orange juice.

Vegetarian sources of zinc include nuts, tofu, miso, legumes, wheat germ and wholegrain foods.

Pumpkin seeds provide one of the most concentrated sources of zinc, so sprinkle them liberally on that salad!

Vitamin D

Good vegetarian sources of vitamin D include eggs, soy milk fortified with vitamin D, and oily fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines.

Omega-3s

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that the body can't make, with benefits that include lowering the risk of heart disease and easing arthritis, among many others.

Pescotarians can get their omega-3s by eating two to three serves of oily fish every week and supplementing with fish oil capsules.

Vegetarians can eat eggs for omega-3s, while plant-based sources include canola- and soybean-based fats and oils, nuts (particularly walnuts), linseeds (flaxseeds) and chia seeds.

Some omega-3 supplements are now derived from algae and are suitable for use by vegetarians and vegans.

Calcium

Calcium, found primarily in dairy products, is needed in every diet for strong bones and teeth.

"Vegans need to ensure they're replacing calcium and B12," says 12WBT dietitian Lisa Donaldson.

Plant-based calcium is found in legumes, almonds, leafy greens, tahini, tofu and calcium-fortified cereals and fruit juices. But plant-based calcium consumption needs to be generous, as it's hard for the body to absorb.

Milk alternatives, such as calcium-fortified soy milk, can help.

"Many soy, almond or rice milk products will have added calcium phosphate to ensure that there is at least 300mg of calcium per cup," says Lisa.

Vitamin B12

B12 helps our body manufacture red blood cells. It also helps keep our brain and nerves healthy.

Both eggs and dairy provide valuable sources of B12 for vegetarians.

Vegans must include B12-fortified vegan products in their diets, and take a specific B12 supplement each day to ensure adequate intake, advises Lisa.

Are you Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

Following a well-planned vegetarian diet while pregnant is entirely safe, but you need to be extra careful to ensure you're meeting all the nutritional needs for you and your growing baby.

This means eating enough protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12, as well as vitamins and minerals essential to pregnancy including folate and iodine.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should aim to include sources of protein at each meal such as nuts, seeds, soy products and dried beans and peas.

During pregnancy you also need a lot more iron than normal, so an iron supplement is highly recommended.

"It may be worthwhile chatting to your doctor and even getting a blood test to make sure everything is on track," Lisa says.

Vegan women need to particularly watch their levels of vitamin B12 during pregnancy and breastfeeding as it's needed for the baby's blood cell growth, brain development and nerve function.

Vegan mothers will need to eat B12-fortified foods or take B12 supplements, and talk to a doctor or dietitian.

Children and Babies

A healthy lifestyle is a great choice for all the family. If you're vegetarian or vegan and are considering including your family in your diet, that's great news.

While babies and very young children should not be on a strict vegetarian diet, the added health benefits of eating more plant-based foods, a variety of fruits and vegetables plus whole grains will mean your children grow up strong and healthy.

All the same, principles of following a vegetarian diet apply for children, but remember that kids have higher energy needs than adults.

Energy-rich foods include cereals, pasta, rice, bread, dairy products and fruit.

Ensure vegetarian kids are meeting their nutritional needs. It's important that growing children get enough protein in their diet.

Good sources of protein are dairy products, eggs, grains, legumes, beans, pulses and soy foods such as tempeh and tofu.

How can 12WBT Help With a Vegetarian Diet?

12WBT offers a complete vegetarian nutrition plan comprising healthy meals put together by our team of experts.

There's a corresponding shopping list for each vegetarian recipe to make things even easier when planning your meals and heading to the supermarket.

And vegetarian members can find a huge amount of support from each other in the 12WBT Eating Right Forums; here you can discuss adapting non-vegetarian recipes to vegetarian and share tips and experiences.

• Read our articles on how to create a healthy lunch or dinner.

• Thinking about cutting out gluten? See our article on whether to do so and how to create a healthy gluten-free diet.