It’s often questioned whether a vegetarian diet will provide sufficient nutrients to create a healthy balanced diet. In short, the answer is yes! A well balanced vegetarian diet will meet all healthy eating recommendations and is nutritionally adequate for all population groups. This article outlines the key considerations for living a healthy, meat-free life.

What is vegetarian eating?

A healthy vegetarian diet is derived mainly from plant-based foods. It includes a wide variety of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Meat is excluded, however, depending on varying cultural beliefs and/or preferences, dairy products and/or eggs are consumed. The different types of vegetarian eating are as follows;

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians include dairy and eggs in their diet but exclude animal flesh
  • Lacto-vegetarians include dairy in their diet but exclude eggs and animal flesh
  • Ovo-vegetarians include eggs in their diet but exclude dairy and animal flesh
  • Vegans exclude all animal-derived foods from their diet including eggs, dairy and generally honey (read the article 'A guide to vegan eating').

Can I use the Second Nature recipes if I’m vegetarian?

Yes! There's an entire section dedicated to vegetarian recipes and you'll also find all of our breakfast options are meat-free. In addition to this, many of our recipes can be easily adapted to suit a plant-based diet.

Your priority should be to make sure you're getting adequate protein with your meals, which is definitely possible on a vegetarian diet. It's important to keep in mind that some vegetarian sources of protein also contain carbohydrates, such as legumes and lentils. While it's fine to eat these foods regularly, we recommend balancing your meals by reducing other carbohydrate sources. For example, try to avoid having lentils and rice in the same meal.

Are there any nutrients I could be lacking if I’m following a vegetarian diet?

A well-planned vegetarian diet will provide all essential nutrients for general health and wellbeing. However, it does take a little more effort and consideration to ensure that you (and your family) are getting all the nutrients you require.

Protein

Proteins are formed from smaller components called amino acids and are generally referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’. This is because they help your body grow, maintain and repair itself. Most of these amino acids can be made in the body, but there are nine ‘essential’ amino acids that can only be obtained through the diet. These are found in varying amounts in vegetarian food sources, so it’s important to include the following foods regularly in your diet:

  • Dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese)
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (eg beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Soy products (eg tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yoghurt)
  • Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Grains - quinoa, amaranth grain, wholegrains

Iron

Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells and the transportation of oxygen in the body. A vegetarian diet can be high in iron, however, the type of iron (non-haem) available in plant-based food is absorbed at a much lower rate than iron from meat (haem). Due to this, higher quantities are required to meet our daily requirements. Consumption of the following foods will help you to meet your recommended iron intakes:

  • Legumes
  • Eggs
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Quinoa, amaranth grain, wholegrains

Extra tips to increase non-haem iron absorption

  • Consume food high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens) with your iron foods. Vitamin C helps increase the absorption of non-haem iron.
  • Avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time as iron-rich foods. The tannins in these foods can inhibit iron absorption.
  • Avoid foods fortified with calcium/calcium supplements with meals as calcium inhibits iron absorption.

Calcium

Calcium is required to maintain healthy bones and teeth and is, therefore, an essential nutrient for all population groups. Inadequate intakes can lead to the weakening of bones and an increased risk of osteoporosis. Calcium is also important for blood clotting, and nerve and muscle function. You can find high amounts of calcium in the following foods:

  • Dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese)
  • Calcium-fortified foods (eg. soy, nuts, oats, rice milks and yoghurts)
  • Tofu
  • Almonds, brazil nuts
  • Sesame products (seeds, tahini)
  • Asian greens, kale, collard greens, broccoli

Extra tips to increase your calcium absorption

  • Ensure Vitamin D intakes are adequate (see Vitamin D below)
  • Limit sodium intake as salt increases the loss of calcium through your urine
  • Limit caffeine intake (coffee, energy drinks, sugar-sweetened beverages) as this can also inhibit calcium absorption

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is required for the absorption of calcium and phosphate, which are minerals required for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It also plays a role in immunity and our brain function.

Vitamin D is generally known as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin as our largest source of this vitamin comes from UV sunlight rays. This can be of concern in winter, as we generally spend less time in the sun. Vitamin D can also be obtained through dietary sources of eggs, mushrooms and fortified margarine and breakfast cereals. However, a supplement may still be required in autumn and winter months to meet recommended daily intakes.

Omega 3

Like amino acids, there are some essential fatty acids we cannot make in the body. We, therefore, need to rely on dietary sources to meet our daily requirements. Omega 3 is one of these fatty acids and is required for general health and to reduce inflammation in the body. To boost your Omega 3 intake, include the following foods in your diet:

  • Oils (flaxseed, chia, cold-pressed rapeseed)
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
  • Seaweed
  • Chia seeds, linseeds

It’s vital we get the right balance of Omega 3 to 6 in our diet. Omega-6 isn’t bad per se, but it's sometimes seen as bad because of the sources we get it from - largely processed vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, canola and soybean) and margarine. We would advise replacing these with oils that are high in omega 3 (e.g. flaxseed, chia, cold-pressed rapeseed oil).

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is required for cell division, red blood cell formation and maintenance of the nervous system. B12 is generally only available from animal sources however it’s also fortified in some foods. Dietary sources include:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese)
  • Nutritional yeast, marmite (fortified)

Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required if these foods are not consumed regularly. However, we would advise you to discuss this with your GP first.

Do I need to take supplements?

As outlined in the paragraphs above, there are some nutrients that are harder to obtain on a vegetarian diet. They are as follows:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D/ vitamin K complex*
  • Omega 3

If you're concerned about whether you or a family member should be on a supplement, we advise you to consult your GP or medical practitioner.

*Vitamin D requires both magnesium and vitamin K2 to be effective. While there are a number of plant-based sources of magnesium, vitamin K2 is only available in meat and dairy sources. For this reason, a combined vitamin D/vitamin K2 supplement would be advisable.

 

Vegetarian Meal Ideas

Breakfast

All Second Nature breakfast recipes cater to a vegetarian style of eating.

Lunch

  • Bean and tomato soup
  • Butternut squash soup
  • Minestrone soup
  • Beetroot falafels
  • Blackbean patties
  • Cheesy aubergines
  • Savoury slice

Dinner

  • Coconut dahl
  • Lentil bolognese
  • Mediterranean quinoa
  • Moroccan butternut squash
  • Stuffed peppers
  • Tofu cashew nut stirfry

Snacks

  • Handful of nuts/seeds
  • 1 serving of fruit
  • Greek yoghurt
  • Wholegrain cracker with nut butter or avocado
  • Vege sticks with hummus
  • Blueberry pancake
  • Naked fruit crumble
  • Square of the savoury slice

Second Nature recipe swaps for vegetarians

  • Butter chicken - swap for 200g paneer or firm tofu (cubed)
  • Chicken fajita bake - swap for 400g firm tofu (cubed)
  • Pesto chicken with butternut squash salad - swap for 225g halloumi (pan fry slices)
  • Mexican pork bowls - swap for 400g firm tofu, crumbled into the kidney beans
  • San choy bau - swap for 400g firm tofu, crumbled
  • Lamb rogan josh/Lamb tikka masala - swap for 400g paneer or firm tofu (cubed)
  • Moussaka and Greek salad - make the sauce without meat, layer eggplant with ricotta and sauce
  • Harissa chicken salad - swap for 225g halloumi (pan fry slices)
  • Tamara’s shredded Thai chicken salad - 200g firm tofu, dry under paper towel, cut into strips, pan fry until crispy

Note: there are many other Second Nature recipes that can be adapted to suit a vegetarian diet.

You can also read our article on 'Vegan resources and recipes' for more inspiration.

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