A balanced meat-free diet can be varied, delicious and healthy. If you are thinking of becoming vegetarian (or vegan, with no eggs, dairy and in some cases, honey) here are a few basics to keep in mind. It’s also a handy reference for “accidental vegetarians”, omnivores who only eat meat once or twice a month.
There are three primary vegetable/vegan sources of protein – beans/legumes, nuts/seeds and grains. Dairy also contains protein. However all 4 sources do not have every amino acid that is needed to make a complete protein. Popular consensus has swung from needing at least two out of four sources in one meal to get total protein, to having at least two different types of vegetarian protein over the entire day. For ovo-vegetarians, eggs are the only complete protein (don’t need to be combined with other vegetarian protein sources) and make a handy energy hit.
All vegetarian protein sources contain calcium, not just dairy. In fact, the myth that dairy is the “best” source of calcium can be misleading. Vegans in particular should include regular serves of – seeds, nuts, tahini, beans, soy products, figs, seaweed (especially kombu and nori), figs and green leafy vegetables. Muesli, hommos, bean salad, and fig and nut balls – all make high calcium (and often protein) snacks. Remember to avoid caffeine within 2 hours of meal or supplements and cut out soft drinks, for maximum absorption.
More information on building strong bones.
Carnivore fact: Did you know a high meat/protein diet can decrease your calcium/bone density levels?
Not everyone is efficient in converting non-animal sources of iron into the most bio-available form in the body. It is a good idea to get an annual blood test to check both your iron levels and iron storage (ferritin). Best vegetarian iron sources include – nori, lentils, seeds, peaches, apricots, brown rice, beans and barley. Eggs have some iron as well. Unfortunately tannins, oxalates (e.g. in spinach) and phytates (in those wonderful wholefoods) can decrease absorption – another reason to keep an eye on your blood levels, even for meat eaters. Vitamin C helps your body take up iron from food, take 250 mg with iron rich meals.
More information on sources of iron and anaemia.
Carnivore fact: Many omnivores have low iron levels; food allergies, caffeine consumption and over exercising are some common lifestyle causes.
This vitamin is found only in animal foods (including eggs and dairy) so this means vegans need to supplement their intake with at least 2.4 micrograms/day. While the body can store this vitamin for years, low levels leads to exhaustion and even irreversible nerve damage.
Carnivore fact: More meat eaters than vegans are diagnosed with low B12 levels. Low stomach acid and some pharmaceutical drugs (including the contraceptive pill) can interfere with B12 absorption and use.
Vegan myth: spirulina contains B12. Unfortunately the type of B12 in spirulina is not one we can use and may block our ability to absorb the B12 we need!
How to become vegetarian
There is no right or wrong way to become vegetarian. While some people ease into a new diet gradually by stopping cooking meat at home and only eating it on special occasions, for others it’s a case of ‘all or nothing’. When making a diet change for health reasons (rather than strictly ethical), an in-between ‘meat-free plus seafood’ diet is an option. Though technically not vegetarian, it provides an easy compromise.
If you are choosing to be strictly vego, check out some of the websites and books below for ideas on diet and nutrition. If you are not a confident cook, or all your favourite dishes revolve around meat, consider doing a vegetarian, grains or legumes based cooking course. (Check your local organic store to see if they have brochures for classes).
It is a good idea to tell your friends and family that you have changed your diet and ask for their support. If they don’t know what to cook, make some suggestions or offer to bring part of the meal.
Eating out as a vegetarian in a city like Melbourne is relatively easy. Some top end restaurants even have a separate vegetarian menu but they only bring out if you ask for it. Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines have lots of legumes and wholegrains, Lebanese restaurants often have a vegetarian platter with stuffed vine leaves, dips and salads. For a special meal at an expensive restaurant it is always a good idea to call them first to let them know about your diet. If you are traveling overseas or interstate, do some searching online to find good vegetarian options in an unfamiliar city. Remember to book a vegetarian or vegan meal with your air ticket when flying.
Vegan and vegetarian resources
The best cookbook for a new vegetarian cook: Veg In by Flip Shelton.
Inventive recipes to extend your vegetarian repertoire: Feel Good Food by Tony Chiodo. (Note it does contain a few non-vegetarian dishes but overall the recipes are 90% vegan).
Lisa Dempster’s on How to Go Vegan
For good information about vegetarian diet and lifestyle, the UK Vegetarian Society is the pick of the bunch.
Also from the UK the Vegan Society is a useful resource.