With vegetarianism and veganism on the rise in the UK, it's important to know where to get your essential nutrients to stay healthy. These are the three main diets that involve reducing your intake of animal products, or avoiding them entirely:
- Pescatarian diets don't contain meat
- Vegetarian diets don't contain meat or fish
- Vegan diets don't contain meat, fish, or other animal products such as eggs, dairy or honey
People may decide to follow these diets for ethical, environmental or health reasons.
It's fairly easy to get your essential nutrients with a balanced pescatarian diet, but it may be more challenging to get your daily quota if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially without a little more planning and education. Here are some tips which may help.
Eating a healthy vegetarian diet
It's possible to get your essential nutrients in good amounts from a vegetarian diet. It used to be widely believed that vegetarian diets left people low in calcium (an important mineral for bone health) and protein (one of the major food groups important for a huge amount of bodily functions). It's now thought, however, that as long as dairy, lentils, pulses and beans are part of your diet as a vegetarian, you're likely to have adequate levels of both calcium and protein.
Three important nutrients to ensure you're getting enough of as a vegetarian include:
An important vitamin used to produce healthy red blood cells which can carry haemoglobin. Haemoglobin helps our blood carry oxygen around the body. Vitamin B12 can be found in milk, cheese and eggs, as well as fortified cereals and fortified yeast extracts.
Another important nutrient as it contributes to the formation of healthy red blood cells. This can be found in pulses, dried fruit, dark green vegetables and wholemeal bread.
Omega-3 fatty acids
This can be found in linseed and rapeseed oil, soya-based products and walnuts. These are all good sources of ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), which is one of the three omega-3 fatty acids. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are the other two omega-3 fats which contribute to heart health. These are mainly found in oily fish, but you can consider a micro-algae-based supplement instead.
Eating a healthy vegan diet
In addition to the advice above, those on a vegan diet may require more careful planning of their nutrient intake. Pay particular attention to sources of protein, omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, selenium and iodine.
In particular, take care to ensure you get enough of the following:
An important mineral for bone health. This can be found in fortified soy, oat, nut and rice milks, sesame seeds, pulses, bread, and dried fruits.
Important for the regulation of calcium and phosphate in the body to support healthy teeth, bones and muscles. It can be found in fortified fat spreads and breakfast cereals. It's also made by the skin when exposed to sunlight, although it's important to stick to the usual safety advice regarding sun exposure and wear sunscreen to protect against sunburn. When considering supplementation, a daily supplement with 10 micrograms vitamin D is recommended by the Department of Health for adults during the autumn and winter months. Some vitamin D supplements are not suitable for vegans. Vitamin D2 and lichen-derived vitamin D3 are generally suitable but always read the pack information.
It can be difficult to get enough vitamin B12 whilst on a vegan diet. Therefore, it's important to supplement or plan your diet to include foods such as breakfast cereals fortified with B12, unsweetened soya drinks fortified with vitamin B12 or yeast extracts such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12.
When to seek help
If you experience any new tingling or numbness in your hands or feet, or visual disturbances, this may indicate you're deficient in vitamin B12 and you should see your Doctor. It's also a good idea to see your Doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms while following a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Reduced exercise tolerance
- Pale skin