A well balanced vegetarian diet can be a very healthy diet, however a well balanced vegetarian diet requires education, planning and some effort. Many people embarking on a vegetarian diet simply eliminate meat and in some circumstances all animal products, and don’t consider replacing the animal protein with appropriate vegetarian sources of protein. This includes people who become vegetarians and just eat vegetables or salad for lunch and dinner thinking that this is actually healthy. This ‘meat elimination diet’ may eventually result in fatigue, mineral deficiency and lowered immunity amongst other signs of sub-optimal nutrition. Those that do make an effort to include vegetarian sources of protein, often fall short of adequate daily requirements of protein, or only consume some of the essential amino acids, but not all of the essential amino acids required by the body for optimal health.

There are a number of variations of the ‘vegetarian diet’.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian:               Dairy food (milk, yoghurt, cheese) and eggs are consumed but no animal meat.

Ovo-vegetarian:                       Eggs are consumed but no dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese) or animal 
No dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese), eggs, or animal products are 
                                                          consumed at all.

There are many reasons why people choose to become vegetarian including religious reasons (eg. Seventh Day Adventist faith), weight loss (although this is often better achieved by following a different eating approach), ethical reasons and/or a desire to improve well being.

Following an unbalanced vegetarian diet for a few weeks is generally not going to cause any long term health issue. It is more of a concern if a fad vegetarian diet (as opposed to a well balanced vegetarian diet) is maintained for beyond 6-12 months, and of particular concern is an unbalanced vegetarian diet which is followed for a number of years. Clinically these people often present with fatigue, repetitive infections and in women and teens periods may become heavier as iron stores reduce. Not only does excessive menstrual flow contribute to low iron stores, it can also be a result of low iron stores. 

A well balanced vegetarian diet can give rise to some impressive health benefits. A good vegetarian diet usually involves:  an increase in the consumption of antioxidants (Vit C, E, bioflavonoids) which are protective to the cells of the body, an increase in fibre which promotes healthy elimination of cholesterol and reduces the incidence of constipation and other potential diseases of the bowel; is often lower in saturated fats and cholesterol which can lead to a reduced incidence of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some people with auto-immune disease find their symptoms decrease when following a well balanced vegetarian diet.

A poorly managed vegetarian diet may bring about some potential health risks. Mineral deficiencies in iron and zinc are the most common deficiencies seen in vegetarians. Iron and zinc may be reduced not only due to restricted intake of foods containing high levels of these nutrients, but also due to substances naturally found in vegetables and grains which inhibit the absorption of these minerals. Sub optimal vitamin B12 levels are also of concern, particularly in vegans as B12 is solely found in animal products. Lacto-ovo vegetarians tend to be less at risk due to their consumption of eggs and dairy products. 

Insufficient protein intake is a concern with vegetarian diets and is of particular importance in pregnant and breast feeding women, children, teens and athletes. Protein deficiency can result in reduced muscle mass, fatigue, hair loss, poor skin health and lowered immunity. In children long term inadequate protein may lead to impaired growth. Vegetarian children and pregnant women (especially vegans) may improve their health significantly by supplementing with iron, zinc, B12 and perhaps even protein. Essential fatty acid and iodine deficiency also needs to be assessed. High consumption of soy products (and even brassica vegetables) may interfere with thyroid function If low iodine levels are present. Long term vegetarians, especially those with big intake of soy products would benefit from thyroid function and iodine status assessment.

Why is protein such an issue? Animal products contain all of the essential amino acids that are required by humans for optimal function, and are therefore considered ‘primary’ or ‘complete’ proteins. They are called essential because we are unable to manufacture them inside the body and therefore they need to be consumed through the diet. They are also essential because they are required by the body to function. Protein does exist in the plant world, however these sources of protein are considered ‘secondary’ or ‘incomplete’ proteins because they do not contain all of the essential amino acids. They may contain most of them, but in order for a complete protein to be consumed and utilised by the body, a number of different vegetarian proteins need to be eaten together to ensure all essential amino acids are provided. This is known as protein combining.

Following is a sample menu of a balanced vegetarian diet which includes protein at each meal, and a combination of plant based proteins to ensure consumption of all essential amino acids:

Breakfast:         Oats or muesli with rice/almond and coconut or cow’s milk, chia seeds, linseeds, 
                        almonds, yoghurt, berries  or eggs on sourdough.

Lunch/Dinner:   Lentils or chickpea patty with rice, stir fry vegetables with tofu, cashews, sesame seed and rice noodles.

Snacks:             Nut spread on rice cakes, fruit with yoghurt sprinkled with almonds, chia seeds or muesli mix.

Annual blood tests may be advisable for vegetarians especially vegans, with particular attention being paid to iron levels as well as the ferritin (storage form of iron) – which will give a longer term view on iron levels in the body. It would also be advisable for vegans to check zinc and B12 levels, especially if planning to conceive in the near future. Teens with heavy periods should be assessed for iron deficiency. 

For further information about vegetarian diets or to make an appointment please contact Diana Arundell at Avoca Naturopath on 0410 465 900.