Going veggie? Here’s what you need to know to have a healthy vegetarian diet

Vegetarianism is on the up with the health benefits of a meat-free life advocated by fans. We asked the experts how to make sure you get all your nutrients without eating meat

Vegetarians have healthier hearts, according to new research that suggests veggies are up to a third less likely to suffer or die from heart disease.

Liz O’Neill from the Vegetarian Society says: “We already know that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, diabetes and many cancers but this study clearly shows that being vegetarian is, regardless of other factors, simply better for your heart.”Fruit and veg are packed with nutrition ©Rex

If you’re inspired to help your heart out and go veggie, we asked experts at the Vegetarian Society what key things new vegetarians need to remember to get the meat out of their meat-free diet.

Su Taylor explains, “A balanced vegetarian diet is one of the easiest ways to follow official healthy eating guidelines, with five portions of fruit and veg a day, plenty of complex carbohydrates and antioxidants as well as lower saturated fat and cholesterol. A balanced vegetarian diet tends to be lower in calories and higher in fibre so can also help maintain a healthy weight.

“Going vegetarian isn’t as daunting or as difficult as you might think.”


Going veggie – the essentials

“There are many people out there who believe vegetarians have trouble getting protein, iron, B vitamins and other essential nutrients. Thankfully, they’re wrong! Vegetarians don’t find it difficult at all to get the same full range of nutrients as meat-eaters - they just get them from different sources.

“It’s easy to tick all the nutritional boxes when eating a healthy and varied veggie diet."

Protein

Protein is essential for the body’s growth and repair. It’s easy to get as almost all foods contain some protein, though both quantity and quality do vary.

Nuts, pulses, beans, chickpeas, eggs, dairy, tofu and most meat substitutes are all high in protein. Eating dishes using these foods combined with rice, grains, pasta or bread, which also contain different kinds of protein, is an easy way to reach your recommended daily intake. One quick and simple combination is beans on toast!Eggs are a great source of protein for non-vegans

Iron

It’s important to maintain a good level of iron in the body as it helps with your energy levels, digestion and nerve function. Fortified breakfast cereals and wholemeal bread, green leafy vegetables, nuts, pulses, grains, dried fruit and tofu are great sources of iron, so try incorporating them into meals or snacks.


[Related: Five surprisingly healthy foods]


To increase the level of iron absorbed by your body by up to three-fold, eat iron-rich foods and foods high in vitamin C at the same time. One of the easiest ways to do this is to drink a glass of fresh orange juice with your food.

Vitamin B12


B12 is important for healthy blood and growth and also helps to keep the eyes, brain and nervous system functioning normally. Dairy products and eggs are natural sources of vitamin B12, while many margarines, yeast extracts, breakfast cereals, soya milks and yoghurts are useful sources because they are fortified, so have a good look at the label.Dairy is a good source of calcium and nutrients

Fatty acids

Omega 3 essential fatty acids are needed for a healthy nervous system and brain function. They are found in vegetarian foods such as rapeseed oil, flax seeds and walnuts, and are added to some margarines and spreads, but do make sure the products don’t contain fish oils.

Helena Gibson-Moore from the British Nutrition Foundation agrees that meat-free can be a healthy choice.

“A vegetarian diet can be very healthy. However, if you decide to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you should eat a wide variety of foods to ensure all your nutritional needs are met, as is the case with everyone.”

She adds that it’s also important to ensure you eat enough selenium, found in fish, cereals and nuts (especially Brazil nuts), and calcium.


“The best foods for calcium are milk, yogurt and cheese. If you need a non-dairy alternative try tofu, green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified foods such as soya milk, yoghurts and puddings or rice and almond milks, brown and white bread, nuts, sesame seeds and tahini as well as dried fruit.

“Cheese is often a popular choice for people following vegetarian diets, but while it is a good source of protein, calcium and other nutrients, some varieties can be high in saturated fat and salt. If you don't eat milk and dairy products, choose soya, rice or almond milk and products, fortified with calcium instead.”

For more information on vegetarian diets visit the Vegetarian Society and the British Nutrition Foundation.