Vegetarianism is a hot health trend, but it makes sense for all of us to eat less meat — both for the sake of our health and the environment.
If you’ve been thinking about cutting back on meat, you’re not alone. Last year, Aussies googled the term ‘vegan’ more than any other country in the world. But if you’ve grown up on meat and three veg, it can be tricky knowing where to start.
We want to show you that adopting a vegetarian diet can be an easy and delicious option. If you’re not ready to commit fully, you could try a ‘flexitarian’ approach, and start by replacing some meat meals with vego dishes.
No matter what journey you take to better health, here’s what you need to know about the power of plants.
Why what you eat matters…
The healthiest diets in the world have one very important thing in common — they’re all based on plant foods rather than meat.
Overwhelming evidence from studies around the world proves that plant foods are your most powerful allies in protecting against several lifestyle-related diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
You’ll also lower your cancer risk, with large studies linking a high intake of red meat and processed deli meats (such as salami, ham and bacon) to an increased risk of bowel cancer. In contrast, plant foods contain hundreds of antioxidants, which help stop damage to cells, and protect against certain cancers.
Adopting a vegetarian diet can also help you manage your weight. “The scientific data tells us that eating a plant-based diet makes weight control much easier, because you eat tonnes of food, volume-wise, but it’s all low in kilojoules,” says Sue Radd, Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and author of Food as Medicine: Cooking for Your Best Health. “So, you don’t have to count kilojoules — you just eat until you’re full. But it only works if you stick to those unrefined, plant-based foods.”
Plant-based diets more closely match the recommended dietary guidelines of eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, and limit intakes of saturated fats and sugars, meaning your diet as a whole will improve. Currently, just 7 per cent of Aussies are meeting the daily quota of vegies, so we could all add a little extra colour to our meals.
And, finally, you’ll be helping the environment. Plant foods produce far less greenhouse-gas emissions than meat. Flatulent, belching cattle expel a huge amount of methane, and experts estimate that this makes up 10 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Your guide to a meat-free kitchen
Start your vego journey to better health in five simple steps.
1. Know your plant-based proteins
We know what you’re thinking… what about protein? “The biggest myth about vegetarian diets is that you can’t get enough protein,” says Radd. “In Australia, we eat plenty of protein — too much even. But a diet that includes a variety of plant foods, including legumes, nuts and seeds, makes it easy to get enough protein, but not too much.”
Plant-based proteins tend to have a better nutrient package than animal proteins. Plant protein is packed with fibre, healthy fats, vitamins and antioxidants. Here’s how to get your protein fix.
Soy milk, tofu and soy mince are made from the humble soy bean. Silken tofu can be used to make sauces and dips, while the firm variety is perfect for stir-fries, grills and curries. Include calcium-fortified soy milk in drinks and porridge.
Nuts and nut butters provide healthy fats, protein and a host of vitamins and minerals. Eating 30g of nuts a day (a handful) has been shown to lower your risk of developing heart disease by 30–50 per cent, and improve longevity.
Legumes such as chickpeas, beans and lentils provide good-quality protein and fibre, and have a low-glycaemic index, which explains why they’re so filling! Aussies don’t eat enough legumes. In fact, we need to increase our intake by 470 per cent to meet dietary guidelines. If flatulence is an issue, try soaking dried legumes in water for at least 18 hours before cooking them.
2. Overhaul your pantry
Did you know that most of us make 250 food-related decisions every day? So that it’s a whole lot easier to make healthy choices at home, fill your pantry with wholesome foods that you can easily transform into delicious meals. Start with these meat-free must-haves:
Extra virgin olive oil: Good-quality extra virgin olive oil is, quite literally, liquid gold. It’s rich in protective polyphenols, and studies confirm it can help reduce chronic disease. Use it in salad dressings, for roasting, and even in stir-fries. And remember, fresh is best, so locally produced Australian olive oils are a great choice.
Eggs: Eggs are the ultimate protein-rich fast food that’s packed with nutrients such as zinc and folate. Most experts agree that eating one egg a day won’t adversely affect cholesterol levels. So, enjoy them boiled, scrambled, in omelettes or make a frittata with leftover vegetables. Try our Vegetarian curried omelette.
Quinoa: Quinoa contains all the essential amino acids and provides protein and carbs in good quantities. Cook grains from scratch or use ready-to-heat pouches for when time is short. Use as a high-protein alternative to rice or pasta, or add to soups and salads.
Lentils: Toss canned brown lentils with lemon zest, garlic, chilli, olive oil and baby spinach for a quick salad, or throw lentils into soups and casseroles. Dried lentils cook quickly and, unlike most other pulses, don’t require lengthy soaking beforehand.
Canned beans: It pays to keep a few cans of beans on hand — they’re so versatile. Go for those canned in water without added salt. As well as using them to make go-to bean salads, curries and stews, you can whiz them into patties, dips and hoummos.
3. Get ahead on your prep
Studies show that more time spent at home preparing meals is an indicator of healthy eating. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to the kitchen. Some basic food prep on the weekend will save you loads of time during the week, so you have more time to sit and eat together as a family — win-win!
These five time-saving hacks will give you a head start:
Cook a big batch of legumes, brown rice or any other whole grain on the stove top, or in a pressure cooker or rice cooker. Divide into smaller portions and freeze until ready to reheat and add to meals.
Roast vegetables, such as sweet potato, pumpkin, red capsicum and eggplant until tender, then toss through salads or bake into frittatas.
Make a tomato-based sauce from fresh or canned tomatoes, passata, onions, garlic and herbs. Freeze into smaller portions to use in stews, curries, pasta dishes or soups.
Whip up a batch of vegie fritters, then store in the fridge for lunches over several days.
Pre-chop vegies such as cucumber and carrots and store in containers in the fridge for an easy, healthy snack. It’s a great way to get in more raw veg while waiting for dinner!
4. Preparing a healthy plate
Aim to fill half of your plate with colourful vegies, a quarter with fibre-rich, low-GI whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa, barley or soy-linseed bread), and the other quarter with protein-rich foods (including beans, nuts, lentils and tofu).
And don’t forget dairy or fortified soy foods for extra calcium, as well as healthy plant fats and whole pieces of fruit.
5. Invest in handy kitchen helpers
Invest in your future health with these top kitchen gadgets used for preparing vegetarian meals.
Pressure cooker: This is a must-have to help slash the cooking time of whole grains and legumes by 75 per cent.
Spiralizer: Turn any vegie into fun and creative shapes, like zoodles (zucchini noodles).
Mini food processer or blender: Perfect for making pesto and curry pastes, these blenders create big flavour with minimal effort. Make sure you get a high-powered one that can process hard foods like nuts.
Storage containers: For a lunch in a flash, store and freeze your leftovers in freezer-friendly, microwave-safe containers.
Slow cooker: Have a hearty home-cooked dinner waiting for you when you get in the door by doing your meal prep in a slow cooker in the morning.
Vegetarian nutrition 101
One of the big concerns for would-be vegetarians is that they’ll miss out on nutrients. But with a little know-how, you can easily meet most of your needs.
Important for making red blood cells and haemoglobin — low iron levels can result in fatigue and low immunity.
Recommended daily intake: 8mg for men and for women over 50 years; 18mg for younger women.
Top vegetarian sources: Eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fortified cereals and dark green leafy veg.
Important for building and maintaining strong bones and healthy teeth.
Recommended daily intake: 1000mg for women up to 50 years and men up to 70 years; 1300mg for women over 50 years and men over 70 years.
Top vegetarian sources: Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt (three serves of dairy a day is recommended to help meet our needs). Other sources include fortified soy products and dairy alternatives, tofu, tahini, nuts and seeds.
Important for helping to produce energy in the body. It also supports the immune system.
Recommended daily intake: 2.4µg for men and women. It’s a good idea to check your vitamin B12 levels once a year and take a low-dose vitamin B12 supplement, if needed. Vitamin B12 needs extra attention if you’re eating little or no dairy or eggs.
Top vegetarian sources: Soy products and milk alternatives are often fortified with vitamin B12.
Important for normal brain and heart function, and maintaining normal blood pressure.
Recommended daily intake: 430mg for women and 610mg for men (two servings oily fish/week).
Top vegetarian sources: Flaxseed, canola and soy oils, walnuts and flax seeds (linseeds).
Mushrooms: These are vitamin powerhouses and full of savoury umami flavour. Stuff flat mushrooms with herbs and reduced-fat ricotta. Or blitz them and use instead of mince to make a meat-free bolognese.
Spices: A pinch of spice can take a dish from bland to ‘wow’. Try chilli flakes for a touch of heat; garam masala for an Indian twist; nutmeg for a sweet-savoury flavour; and ground coriander for gentle warmth.
Chargrilled veg: Chargrilling vegies, such as capsicum, zucchini and red onions, caramelises the natural sugars for a richer flavour. The grill lines look appetising, too.