Food is much like fashion, and at the moment plant-based diets are the latest ‘in thing’. Here’s how to cut back on meat without missing out on vital nutrients.
Switching to a partial or wholly vegetarian diet usually comes with the promise of a healthy glow. Eating this way is touted as a fast-track way to lose weight and to lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer — with a growing body of scientific research now supporting these claims.
However, we know diet is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. These days — in the space of one week — you can be a vegetarian, a vegan, a pescatarian (eating fish but not meat) and an enthusiastic meat eater. In other words, you’re a flexitarian, a way of eating that’s becoming increasingly popular.
This guide can help you get the nutrition balance right, whichever area of the meat-free spectrum you decide you might like to focus on. Plus, if you enjoy a vegetarian or vegan diet already, you’ll love our delicious new plant-based recipes from this issue:
The way you choose to make the transition to a diet higher in vegetables is crucial, even if you include some fish and meat.
It helps to make the transition slowly. Start by incorporating one meat-free meal — or an entire meat-free day — each week and build from there. And remember, there are plenty of unhealthy vegetarian choices out there.
Vegans need to be particularly vigilant about vitamin B12, iodine and omega-3s, which can all be lacking in a poorly planned vegan diet. Talk to your GP about a B12 supplement if you are concerned.
Even if you occasionally eat red meat, your iron and selenium intakes may become low. As you gradually eat less meat, fish and dairy foods, you may also need to consider whether you’re getting enough vitamin B12.
Relying on fish for your main source of protein is fine, but vary it so that you consume oily fish such as salmon and tuna at least twice a week to make sure you get your necessary intake of healthy omega-3 fats.
Mind the gaps
Make sure that you’re not running low on key vitamins and minerals. Here’s how to get enough:
The iron in red meat (haem iron) is more readily absorbed than from plant sources (non-haem). however, a well-planned vegetarian diet can provide adequate amounts of iron to avoid a deficiency.
Vegans: Legumes, wholegrain bread, nuts, seeds, green leafy veg, seeds
Top sources are meat and seafood, which is why vegetarians can be prone to a deficiency. Selenium is important for a healthy reproductive system and maintaining a robust immune system.
Vegans: Brazil nuts — just 2–3 a day will be enough to meet your needs
This essential vitamin helps us utilise energy from food and make red blood cells. It isn’t easily found naturally in plant-based foods, so vegans should consider a daily supplement.
Start your journey to better health by adding these vegetarian staples to your trolley!
Soy milk that has been fortified is an excellent source of plant protein and calcium — plus it’s naturally low in saturated fat.
Beans, peas and lentils provide high-quality protein and are rich in a special type of fibre called resistant starch, which is great for promoting gut health.
Wholegrain bread is a rich source of low-GI carbohydrates. If you pick a loaf with added seeds, such as soy-linseed, you’ll boost your intake of healthy omega-3 fats.
Cheese is an easy way to boost calcium and add flavour to meals.
Eggs are a valuable source of protein and are packed with zinc and folate. Experts agree eating one egg a day won’t adversely affect cholesterol levels.
Tofu, tempeh and Quorn are all rich in protein and suit a range of dishes. Firm tofu and tempeh can be used in stir-fries and curries, with silken tofu suitable for sauces. Quorn comes from a fungus and is available as mince, patties, pieces or sausages.
Nuts and nut butters provide healthy fats, protein and a range of vitamins and minerals. Aim for a 30g handful every day, and eat a variety, such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews and almonds.
You’ll need to eat good sources of plant protein, so you can meet your daily quota for growth and development. Use our handy guide to work out how much you need.